SA Champion apprentice elect Rachel Venniker makes Hollywoodbets Durban July history in the 126th renewal of the premier race on 2 July when she becomes the first female jockey to ride in the 2200m contest of champions.
Following hot on the heels of the announcement that our 56 year old multiple champion Piere Strydom makes a comeback in the R5 million event to ride Belgarion, the news that the pretty 21 year old rookie will jump a couple of gates to his inside on SA Classic winner Red Saxon in her personal first full season as a professional, is the stuff of media manna for the first-time sponsors of a race that has captivated the public imagination over the decades like no other.
It is ironic in many ways that a showjumping fanatic, vegetarian and hobby artist, who had to break down walls to get an opportunity to ride professionally, now finds herself with a Gr1 winning mount in Africa’s greatest horserace, in what is her first professional opportunity to do so.
A year ago, Rachel, a member of Generation Z, was still riding in qualifying races down the Hollywoodbets Scottsville straight. All races at Hollywoodbets Greyville are run around the turn – and she needed to earn her stripes first.
Talking to the Sporting Post after the announcement of the final field at the Hollywoodbets headquarters in Umhlanga on Tuesday, Rachel was clearly over the moon.
“I am so very excited! This is such an honour and a privilege. I cannot thank Mr Joey Soma and the owners enough. Some guys wait years and years for an opportunity like this. Here I am as a newbie, and I get the call-up. It feels surreal!”
Rachel, who hails from a dynasty of showjumping champions headed by her Dad Brett and has been riding since the age of 4, competed in the show arena, and rode work on racehorses from the age of 14.
She is loathe to harp on the past and the obstacles she faced to realise her dream. But her reference to surreal is squarely appropriate given the fact that she was still riding in workrider events in 2021!
After a meeting with her parents, the respected veterans Michael Roberts, Garth Puller and Kevin Wright made a presentation to the riding masters of the SA Jockey Academy, who had rejected her previous applications.
“All’s well that ends well. And sometimes the doors that slammed shut and the challenges in life build character. This career didn’t land in my lap. So I value my every day experience twice as much, and am more determined than ever to succeed.”
Now sponsored by Jonsson Workwear, things really are looking up for Rachel, who only enjoyed her maiden Grade 1 race experience just weeks ago. She rode Crown Towers in her sponsor’s silks in the Hollywoodbets Gold Challenge on 11 June.
A chance meeting with veteran trainer Joey Soma at Summerveld, led to her doing a bit of work on Red Saxon.
“Mr Soma only asked me the other day whether I was engaged to ride in the Hollywoodbets Durban July. I didn’t exactly have a choice of 5 rides, so I said no. Next I got the call that I was riding Red Saxon. I had to pinch myself. He’s a lovely horse too. I can’t wait for 2 July!”
An astute veteran conditioner, Joey Soma explained that Red Saxon’s regular rider Julius Mariba had done nothing wrong, but that they wanted a rider that knew Hollywoodbets Greyville well – Rachel was that person.
Interestingly, Red Saxon has been declared plus a half kilo in the Hollywoodbets Durban July.
“Apprentices are restricted to ride at certain weights. We are also monitored and weighed regularly. We met with the Stipes who said that if I was to ride Red Saxon, who was allotted 53kgs, I would have to do so at plus 0,5kg. I have no doubt that given the time to the race, that I could have comfortably done the 53kgs. But rules and procedures are in place and we have to respect them. Thankfully Mr Soma was happy with that arrangement, so it’s all systems go!”
Red Saxon, who will jump from a 14 draw, is currently priced at 50-1 on the Hollywoodbets Durban July betting boards. When he won the Gr1 SA Classic back in April, he was Joey Soma’s third success in that race in six renewals. Bred by Narrow Creek Stud, he is the first offspring of Birch Bros Western Winter stallion Red Ray to start in the Hollywoodbets Durban July. He is also Red Ray’s maiden Gr1 winner.
A son of triple SA Champion Sire Western Winter, the very fast Red Ray, who was trained by the charismatic Joey Ramsden, won or placed in 13 of 16 outings while racing in South Africa and Dubai. He scored his biggest win when running out an easy winner of the 2016 Gr1 Mercury Sprint – also run at Hollywoodbets Greyville.
Red Saxon gets his ground legs from his Casey Tibbs three-time winning dam Rodeo Sioux, who, like his granddam Dancing Sioux, was also trained by Joey Soma and won to 2600m. So it’s quite a family affair!