In a country boasting world-class jockeys and some great race commentators, it’s a reality that both disciplines slot perfectly into the sitting duck line of fire often targetted by horseracing’s diverse cognoscenti.
Mike de Kock has already expressed his opinion of our peanut gallery professors.
But let’s face it – whether you are sitting on the back of a horse or behind the binoculars, they are just two very lonely places to be in this game.
At the age of 31, Devonne Govender became South Africa’s newest racecaller at Hollywoodbets Greyville on Sunday when he stepped up from the nursery experience of calling the low-key barrier trials to his first ‘big school’ professional race.
It wasn’t exactly a ‘mission impossible’ type baptism of fire with just seven horses in the line up.
Watch his first call here:
But in-race tongue twisters like Wall Of Dubrovnik and Zave De Grace, and the climax of a short head finish between those two, kept the former harness racing jockey on his toes for the full 65 seconds of the maiden contest.
The man with the calm demeanour, who loves reef fishing to unwind and relax, didn’t break into a cold sweat, but conceded there ‘were some nerves’ tempered by the innate confidence of being well prepared.
“I had a wisdom tooth removed a few days before. So the timing was not ideal. But that was the least of my worries. The barrier trial calls had given me a good feel of things and I just pretended I was sitting at home and calling it from my couch, remembering of course that the world is listening. Overall, I would describe the dominant emotion of that wonderful moment as excitement and an immense sense of achievement,” he adds quietly.
Like many promising youngsters in the ranks of the top heavy age demographic of the South African racing pyramid, Devonne says that Sunday’s milestone was another day just living his dream in a sport he is passionate about.
While he has had his fair share of international travel, he still lives in Verulam, 27km north of Durban, where he grew up and went to school.
In his mid teens he got the opportunity of a lifetime that was to fashion his future. His Dad, a Telecommunications Engineer, secured a contract in New Zealand. It was to be Devonne’s eye-opener and passport into the wonderful world of the sport of kings.
“I was sixteen years old and racing was in our faces 24/7. It was all over the media and, unlike South Africa, New Zealand has an abundance of racetracks all over the country. In fact they have 52 racecourses, from Ascot Park at Invercargill in the South to Ruakaka at Whangarei in the North. That was when I decided I had to get involved in this great game – and harness racing became a particular favourite for me.”
But all good things come to an end, and the finalisation of his Dad’s contract saw Devonne back on Mother Earth – Verulam, to be precise – where he, somewhat reluctantly it seems, commenced his first year IT studies at Varsity College in Durban.
“My parents were always sensibly intent on me getting a qualification.But I had this yearning to get into racing and packed up timetable and my text books and joined the SA Jockey Academy. This was frowned upon by my folks, but they respected my wishes and knew it was what I wanted.”
Devonne spent a year at Summerveld, and under the tutorship of Johan Nilsson and Dean Latimer working with the Summerveld based harness horses. Too tall to be a flat jockey, he drove in 4 of the KZN Premier’s First Harness Challenge series of races.
It was while completing his apprenticeship with Harness Racing South Africa, in conjunction with the South African Jockey Academy, that he was offered an opportunity with Racing and Wagering Western Australia which consisted of one year’s training to obtain his international racing licence – which he still holds.
“What a thrilling experience! During this I time was based at Byford Harness Racing Complex, a premier Harness training facility in Western Australia. I was hosted by a number of licensed trainers with whom I worked closely. Trevor Warwick, multiple champion trainer/driver in Oz and America, was my mentor and Driving Master. When I was initially licensed as a Cadet Driver I was allowed to drive in trial races, where I did very well. Following the requisite number of approved trial drives, I was awarded a professional licence, which enabled me to drive in races, excluding Friday night meetings at Metropolitan tracks.”
Devonne also spent approximately six months with Aldo Cortopassi Pacing Stables.
During this time he performed the duties of a stable hand and track work driver and was involved in all aspects of general stable duties, including stable management and daily routines.
“I learnt so much- from feeding up in the morning, jogging horses, exercising horses on the horse-walker, grooming, washing horses, preparing them for races as well as maintenance of the stable area, gear etc. I then spent four months at Noel Keily’s Pacing Stables. Mr Keily, who had 35 horses, specialises in training and breaking-in of younger horses – yearlings and 2 year olds. Some of my duties included track work driving, assisting with the breaking in, exercising of young horses for the first time on a horse walker, preparing horses for races, gearing and ungearing of horses at races. My 12 months training with RWWA was completed and I returned to South Africa in September 2013, with a whole world of understanding, knowledge and basic experience of these wonderful animals – plus that teenage ambition nurtured in New Zealand,” he recollects proudly.
Veteran racing journalist Andrew Harrison, a fairly talented fisherman himself when he can break away from his keyboard, runs a tight ship at Gold Circle Publishing at Greyville where Devonne is based.
“It’s a great environment. A happy team and it’s racing 24/7. So I love work and there’s no clockwatching or rush at 4pm,” laughs Devonne.
He explains that he does editing, writing reviews for race meetings,and proofreading content for online as well as newspaper and race card /magazine publications.
“I play a diverse role in the media department as Sub-Editor, GTV Presenter, and I also get my hands involved in the design side of things – and now commentating! I also have some fun muting the tv and doing some race calls for the boys in the office. Some good practice in front of a critical audience!”
And does he punt? “Only the odd bet, now and again,” he says.
For his quiet external demeanour, Devonne is empowered with a six-pack of confidence and self-belief as a result of taking every ounce of his experience and training seriously.
From sweeping the stable yard at 4am on icy mornings, he is now in a position of responsibility behind the binoculars at one of South Africa’s historic racecourses.
“I have to pinch myself still, but I believe I have what it takes. My wide scale exposure to racing locally and internationally in both the practical and administrative side has given me a wealth of knowledge as I continue to learn. In this game learning never stops. I have been told by many trainers that I’ve worked for that I have the ‘Master’s Eye’ when it comes to racing. Other professionals have given my voice and elocution the thumbs up. So now it’s up to me to build on that foundation,” he adds.
He says that he has had help and support along the way from many different people and the list is too long to mention, adding that Gold Circle’s Graeme Hawkins, one of our greatest racecallers, is his mentor.
“Terry Spargo is my role model. You would know he is famous for calling in Meydan and he’s now back in his home country calling in Australia. I think he is absolutely brilliant on the world stage. Then when it comes to a favourite, I’d have to say Australian, Chris Barsby.”
We asked Devonne the standard gloomy question on SA racing’s future.
“In this current time everyone knows it’s been difficult. But we have to make every effort to preserve, sustain, regulate and promote this beautiful sport that we all love so much to ensure it continues to thrive into the future.”