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Let’s Give The Jockeys A Break!

Leonie Ermacora - has had enough of couch critics

The recent public criticism of race riding has evoked an emotional response from the wife of a hardworking middle of the road jockey who tragically died in an accident in 2007.

She says that she wishes that horseracing would lift its fragile golden veil of glitz and glamour and play more human open cards in the real world.

Life has gone on for Leonie Ermacora since her world was turned upside down two days after her 46th birthday on 15 August 2007.

Leonie and Peter back in the day

17 August 2007 was the horrific day her then 43 year old jockey husband Peter Dillon was tragically killed when his motorbike mysteriously wobbled and fell in front of a vehicle driven by a 79 year old lady.

“He was five minutes from home. My Dad walked into the shop where I worked and I just knew it was bad. I said, ‘please dad tell me he’s alive!’ He shook his head and my world was broken in pieces…”

As a mark of just how highly her husband was regarded in the industry, Leonie recalls that over 500 people attended his Memorial Service.

Peter Dillon, who joined the SA Jockey Academy in 1979, would often proudly recount how he had pipped Muis Roberts in a driving finish when he steered his first winner home. He was a leading apprentice but never quite got the support when he came out of his time.

Peter’s serious pre-race face (Pic – Gold Circle)

He tried his luck overseas and had ridden in Singapore the year before he died. He also rode in Mauritius and his daughter Catherine is a Mauritian citizen as Leonie was eight months pregnant when they left Durban for Port Louis.

He rode 17 winners from 64 rides in the Middle East, among them two Listed races in Dubai, including the Emirates Sky Cargo Trophy on Baldaquin. His 50% win strike rate in Kuwait, 11 wins out of 22 rides was an outstanding achievement.

A regular Sporting Post reader and poster, Leonie has remarried and lives in Ballito on the KZN North Coast with her husband Edi Ermacora.

Edi Ermacora and Leonie

She stays in close touch with the sport through friends and social media and has strong opinions as to where horseracing fails itself in terms of public image.

“We need to stop fooling everybody. This is a wicked and a tough, tough game – and while some jockeys are driving snazzy cars and living in posh estates, and generally styling, a large proportion of them are eking out an existence. There is a fine line between great, good and plain average – and that normally comes about through a lucky break or two along the way. I know they say you make your own luck in life – but have a heart. And let’s stop jumping on the jockeys every time a favourite gets beaten and we are looking to roast somebody!”

The recent high-profile spotlights on Do It Again and Hawwaam had Leonie suggesting that the trainers become the starting point of explanations to the public rather than the jockey in isolation.

“I know it’s a cliché, but how many professions have an ambulance following the men at work? Sportsmen – cricketers, footballers, Springboks – all have off days and make poor judgements. Nowhere else is it highlighted and placed on the individual’s head like a jockey gets it – and random people seem to say what the hell they like on social media,” she says, adding that what racing needs is the explanation straight from the trainers mouth to the public of why a favourite got beaten.

“Good or bad! Just say it how it is! But racing has always had a problem of public transparency somehow. There is often the story – and then the truth beyond that.”

Her personal feeling is that the game has lost its zest and appeal and that there are too many people who think that they are bigger and better than the sport.

Peter’s Grandson – a chip off the old block!

“We all came in to the world the same way and we will mostly all go out the same way. So let’s stop admiring and idolising the money and the power brokers. Events of the past two years in this industry should prove that money doesn’t make one man any bloody better than the next!”

She suggests that while it’s nothing new, there are ‘too many fingers in too many pies’.

“Too many back-seat drivers too. Racing needs transparency – and it should commence with the small things that taint the image to outsiders – like the eradication of the fact that so many couch potato punters slate jockeys. The industry can do its bit and  help and educate and inform. Accusing the jockeys  of riding for the bookies – or riding a shocker – is conspiracy theorist uninformed hogwash!”

Leonie changes tack as she points out bluntly – from experience – that being married to a jockey is either ‘very easy or very difficult.’

“If you are successful, life is always easier financially. Peter struggled his whole life to be the best he could. He rode work every single day, except Sundays. He was always running from ring to ring – and never ever without a smile. He rode many amazing horses and was one of the hardest working human beings.”

Peter Dillon at Greyville (Pic – Gold Circle)

She asked us never to label her late husband ‘underrated’.

“I really dislike it when people say x, y or z is one of the most underrated jockeys. To any jockey that probably means he is worth his weight in gold. He is a great jock – but he just won’t get rides. How is it that those same underrated jockeys will ride five winners in Zimbabwe and yet never get rides here? Then you have those jocks that just make it. Many times on the back of a huge win, a great horse and from there they are well away. I’m not discounting natural talent. Some guys just have the knack. But personality and a lot of luck counts too. I’m just proud of Peter’s achievements. He was a real soldier.”

Leonie recalls how unpopular she was when she stood up for her late husband with her ‘big mouth’.

“I fought for him for 20 years. We were a team. I loved and I would have died for him. He was my soulmate – my best friend and I adored him. Many felt I fought his battles. Yes, I did! And would do it all again. He was too soft. Too kind. Always smiling – even if things went wrong. I watched him suffer. He would often come home deflated and cry. The public doesn’t see that side of life in the saddle. That’s why when I read ‘experts’ talking rubbish on social media, I get so mad.”

Peter rode his last winner on 1 August. He died on 17 August.

 

“That just shows how tough things can be. We battled and often sold crockery to Cash Converters to feed our kids when things were bad and we had no food. But his love and devotion to his family and his job was incredible. I forgave many people and found peace after his death.”

Leonie and grandchildren

Leonie lived in Johannesburg and at age 12 moved to Hillcrest. She was hooked on racing at age 8 when listening to a commentary on Radio Port Natal. At the age of 16 she put R10 on Lightning Shot to win the July and duly pocketed R240. She became a young Mom to her daughter Gaylene and was working for a company in Pinetown at age 21 when she and the Foreman won a R9000 jackpot.

“We bankered a horse called Red Bikini. It was some time  before I met Peter and clicked that ironically he rode that winner. I bought my first car with that cash!”

Peter was 21 when Leonie met him at a braai with friends.

“He was a soft, kind guy. He accepted Gaylene as his own – that at the tender age of 22 when we got married. I recall he was riding for Doug Campbell and David Payne.  We had two wonderful children – Catherine and Kyle – he absolutely adored all three. Today my children are all happily married and successful in life. I have two gorgeous  grandchildren and little Daniel looks just like his Oupa Peter.”

She and Edi have been married ten years now and her children call him Dad.

“I’m blessed but the road of life is often bumpy as it twists and turns. Edi has bone marrow cancer but he will be fine. I’ve never been afraid of a fight and he is blessed to have been granted the prognosis of a long life still.”

She closes by saying that she often thinks about writing a book one day.

“It’s called Jockey’s Wives. It will make Footballer’s Wives look silly! Racing is a sexy fast-paced tough and wicked game that sells itself all wrong. I have been there and got the t-shirt and actually miss it a lot. There were highs and lows. But I’m just so fortunate and honoured to have been a part of Peter’s life for 22 years. He lived by the credo – ‘I’m not afraid of tomorrow as I have seen yesterday and I love today’. And I use that today in my life still.”

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36 comments on “Let’s Give The Jockeys A Break!

  1. gavin says:

    peter dilion was a legend. i am sure if peter was alive he would have been disgusted at the rides do it again and hawaan recieved from their jockies. peter loved when the punters won. peter never rode the best horses but always tried.

  2. Dylan says:

    May the bird of happiness [email protected] all over you… Peter was a legend and Leonie as well. Miss this chap a lot💪Some great memories together!

  3. Brian says:

    He was indeed a wonderful man. I used to walk along Inanda Rd in the mornings and stop in at lil’s corner on my way back. peter would from time to time stop in to collect the days bread or milk or whatever and Larry the owner would always have a chirp for Peter who, as Leonie says, always had a smile.

    I hear what you say about Jockey’s being harshly and unfairly criticized and may I say, even ignorantly so.

    I have seen top jockeys clearly not riding but sitting even as the field goes past. It is so clear to see but what we don’t know is what were the jockey’s instructions? From my own experience as an owner sometimes the horse needs the run and we left it to the jockey as to what riding tactics he would use. In other sports they talk of match time to bring on the fitness of a player.Horses are no different as you will know Leonie.

    That’s where transparency comes in and where the explanation as you rightly say should begin with the trainer. Gavin Lerena I will bet my farm on did NOT want to lose on Hawaam.

    Here’s the thing though Leonie. In this forum there are more no comments than comments from trainers. So there certainly won’t be transparency from most of them as is clear to see.

    So often have there been comments about transparency from the NHA. As much as they say they’re going to change that policy I for one have certainly not seen any indication that its going to happen and flowing from that, why should anyone else in the industry even consider being transparent.

    Many years back I wobbled into a bar in the old Waterfall Centre where I met Dennis Durand who then introduced me to yourself and Peter and even Craig Peters was there with his wife.

    I am very happy for you and wish you all the very best.

  4. Andre says:

    Your story brings back great memories when you were Peter ‘s agent and used to do MJ Odendaal’ s rides. You could write a whole book on the stories we were told by trainers when we were jocked off a horse in favour of Lloyd or Whyte… But we ensured our boys got there fairvshare of winners.. Those were good days and I will also remember Pete fondly…. Andre Nel

  5. Leonie says:

    Gavin . That’s one side of Peter one never knew . He never once slated a jock… Commented on a bad ride or criticised any one .. This is one trait he had that many never knew .. He never listened to gossip . Infact he hated it.. He kept his thoughts to himself Even to me .. To Peter everyone was equal .. Mistakes or not . He always told me who am I to say anything about anyone that’s of no concern of mine . He taught me alot. His favorite book he was reading a day before he died was called latrel thinking… He was always trying to better himself.. So I know he would never have voiced his opinion… But thank you for your kind words

  6. Leonie says:

    Thank you Brian . I cannot recall you but sure I will if I saw you . What you say is true . To the point I am trying to reiterate…how does the public . Punter know 💯 percent why what where .. Happens in a race without the post race report . This is what causes mahem and jocks get slated.. Imagine knowing in your heart you did nothing wrong but your reputation is being tarnished .. And with defimation in some cases .. So my reason for my comments . And remembering my amazing husband 😘

  7. Leonie says:

    Dylan .. Incredible memories. Thank you 😁

  8. Leonie says:

    Andre.. Oh my stories memories…. I hold on to many of those .. Dougie and Jeff incredible humans.. Talented and gentlemen .. Dj going to train in hk . I’m immensely proud as I am of Jeff who’s 15 younger than me and look what he achieved.. That can never be taken away .. But yes we would fight .. Be dissatisfied but that’s racing and history now… I still defend my boys as I call them … ❤️

  9. Cecil says:

    Lovely Article, brings back fond memories. Peter Dillon ran 2nd for us, part owners in an older horse, trained by Dougie Campbell at a Greyville night meeting. He also opened that meeting with a 20-1 shot, with my son pocketing R132 for R6. Remember like yesterday how he gave feedback to us after the race (Sadly, owning horses wasn’t for us long term) but still love this wonderful sport. of ours. Leonie, Pls do write the Book one day.

  10. Leonie says:

    Cecil… Some called him the Xmas jock as they felt like it was Xmas whne they won on him 😊 I will one day write a book… Thanks you for yput kind words

  11. Mervyn says:

    Yes i so somuch wrong for instance the intro of jockeys before the july WHY not the owners imagine u standing on thi s damn podiu m between Marcus and Stydom and CPeters say u a great Bluebulls fan come on Ĺets go back 30 years

  12. WILLIAM MILKOVITCH says:

    Dear Leonie Ermacora,

    I don’t know you from a bar of soap but I would like to say that this was a very heart rendering epitaph about you husband.

    Just once, on a visit to Clairwood, did two of us wave our tickets, from the rail, to your husband on the parade past the grandstand. He had a massive smile and just said “Good afternoon” to us.

    I love your mini-stories about those little wins/moments that meant a lot. I brings things into respective, especially with the hurly-burly commercially driven lifestyles, that many pursue today.

    Back to the issue of jockey criticism. I mentioned on the Sporting Post article when Richard Fourie was questioned about the “Milton runaway affair” exactly what you have said.

    The trainers should be questioned simultaneously, by the Stipes, with the jockey present. Often than not, the trainers have issued hard and fast instructions to jockeys thereby binding them to just one strategy with no flexibility.

    Jockeys then, in turn, don’t want to burn bridges and point fingers at trainers. for the sake of losing future rides, when questioned by Stipes about tactics.

    Brian touches on this briefly in his letter to You – trainer transparency.

    all the best

    william

  13. Leon says:

    Leonie
    I am reading this on my phone,going down the page is a picture of Warren Kennedy. The article starts with the most underrated rider, lol.Warren won the Algoa Cup on my horse trained by Oom Nic Claassen. All Three A King was 100/1.We ran against a horse who won the July and against my friends horse Polo Classic(Terry Lowe). All they could right about was that the horse was a home bred,not much about Warren who came from last carrying top weight winning with a brilliant ride.
    Racing do not listen.Tell me how can anybody still call Warren underrated. You place Leonie’s story ,she tells us about the things that hurt families (underrated) .Warren is not underrated he is one of the best.
    Nice to read your story from the heart.

  14. Adesh rambally says:

    I was kid at time when Peter was a jockey. so much of class but yet such a human and humble person. Two good friends I remember them to be PETER AND ALEC FORBES. RIP SOLDIERS.

  15. Leonie says:

    William . MY tears flow..because that was Peter. Polite and always smiling he never showed his down side no matter how hard life was for him many times.. He wrote me a letter which I found 2 days after he died in his draw telling me one day he will repay me for all I have done for him . And that the word love was not good enough for me it was more . And I will go to heaven . He knows . It was dated on my birthday he died two days later It’s things like that I hold on to . I miss him so so much . His younger brother also died on his bike age 21..but I know he’s ok . He was to good for this earth . He is with us all . And as for your reply re my article .. I cannot fathom why trainers don’t give a report to the public good or bad.. As to what they think of a big race loss.. Only they and the owners actually know… So a meeting with stripes.. jock.. Owner ans trainer and a final report would stop many criticizing.. One Person the pilot .. I know how hard it is to have anyone call you a con… That’s what many think about jocks.. Let’s hope in the future some day this will happen ans satisfy the punters and public and thank. You for your kind words 😘

  16. Leonie says:

    Leon . MY exact point . I was so tired of hearing thoae words . Unerated. Warren is a absolute polished rider and definitely not underrated 😘

  17. Leonie says:

    Thank you adesh they where good friends and alec actually passed the day Peter was buried . So uncanny… Alec was a incredible well respected jock 😘

  18. Leonie says:

    Freelance . Love the name 😍 thank you 😁

  19. Mitchell Curtis says:

    Hey Leonie, I will always remember Peter for his enthusiasm and smile at work, I used to ride with him quite a bit at Ashburton and can certainly say he was an inspiration. He will always be missed but never forgotten.

  20. Rian says:

    Leonie, I dont write much because im not really any good, but just reading and listening to you beautiful rendition of your Love for Peter and your family and im sure Edi loves Peter just as much as you still do and sounds like a wonderful man
    I also remember winning a Jackpot at Scottsville and Peter won on a 20/1 shot with a magnificent ride, miss this great tallent
    Lovely story and families should share more about those Jockeys riding today

  21. Leonie says:

    Thanks Mitchell.. Heart warming to know

  22. Avril Lerena says:

    A lovely story Leonie. I will never forget how you and Peter took the time to join Gavin at Church for his Confirmation when Tex and I were unable to make it. Many thanks for showing such kindness and for putting the record straight when it comes to the slating of jockeys. It’s very hurtful having to read some of the comments when in your heart you know the jockey wanted nothing more than to WIN !!.

  23. Leonie says:

    Avril…. I remember that so clearly and it was our pleasure .. Peter lived Gavin as do I . .. I will always stick up for my boys . As I still call them…. I’m do proud of Gavin… And so would Peter be 🙏😍

  24. Leonie says:

    Rian . The funniest thing is most of Peter’s winners were huge outsiders . And I think to myself.. If he could win on those, others would be sitters…he was worth his weight in gold, and I’m forever proud of him..im blessed to a amazing husband . He has bone marrow cancer . But with stem cell implant he will be ok .. Many battles but many blessings .. Thank you for your kind words 😘

  25. Devon nair says:

    Regarding Hawaam and Do it Again. Lets give credit to the winners. Rainbow Bridge was expected by many to win and he did. Marcus rode him as a champion should. Hawaam was beaten by possibly a future champion.

    Lets be realistic and give praise where it is due.

  26. Brian says:

    Leonie, its been bugging me. You did not fight Peter’s battles. You were his agent. You were doing your job.

  27. Leonie says:

    Absolutely true.. 👌Devon air

  28. Leonie says:

    Brian I did fight a few .. 😁.. He was fired once by three trainers all at once for so called opening his mouth about a horse winning . price of a horse 20/1. Owner had the right to take the 20…In parade ring 2/1….won by five .. He came home so deflated as he was not guilty.. I ph all three and told them I will find out who it was..peter told me to leave it.. NOPE these circumstances really affect jocks . I don’t care you denies it .. It’s HARD. . I found him… The owner…a few drinks in a pub slip of tongue. I made sure peter was cleared and got all three jobs back. That’s how I helped. May they rip all three have passed but loved them all.. Good memories . These are stories I’m not afraid to tell… And it was not the last..doing his rides was very very stressful. But I boxed on… My team mate. 😁 Forever in my heart bless him 🙏

  29. WILLIAM MILKOVITCH says:

    Yip Rian,it was more than likely for Mr. Pappas.

    A Pappas winner @ Scottsville with Mr Peter Dillion up, mostly resulted in a massive Jackpot payout,

    I’m trying to find a box I have in storage from the early 90’s with those outsiders/winners names.

  30. Leonie says:

    William petter rode for Mike Pappas for 15 yrs.. I’ll never forget he rode work at Ashburton then travel to Mooi River to ride work for pappas getting home at after 4 he said once I rode 40 horses today . They had a great friendship to . But because the work riders ride them on other days.. Peter would have to get them to calm down and often they took him galloping into the sugar cane .. So many many stories. Mike horses always had weird names like pot roast and dead eyed dick where two 😂 Always got huge payouts on those two .. I’m still desperate to find some old interviews of Peter . I only have one 😕 . He made punters very happy many times 🙏😁

  31. Rian says:

    And now you have made us all very Happy with your great heart wrenching stories for all of us who have lost loved ones
    He will surely be very proud of you and just hope youve inspired other women to share stories about these fantastic horsemen
    Hoping Edi gets well soon

  32. Leonie says:

    Rian .. I hope so .. It’s the most devistating moment to loose your husband so young .. But I always say life is on loan . One of us in our whole circle of friends and family will witness everyone’s death.. That’s a scary thought . But live for now .. Peter sends me signs on number plates I was feeling sad one day putting petrol in I. Looked up there was a care right in front of me DILLON P . REG IT KNOW he’s with us every day . MY son is 30 now For the first time since his dad died he put a Pic on fb and mentioned how he loves and misses him Took him this long . But edi had a stem cell implant and will be fine . We have to keep going and stay positive … God bless ❤️

  33. Terry Smith says:

    Leonie i remember both you and Peter with fondness the old Julie Dittmer & Pat Riley days we had great times and loved our racing the braai that followed at Ashburton after each winner which included all the grooms jocks and patrons miss those days Keep Well

  34. Leonie says:

    Hey Terry how can we ever forget the braais .. This where incredible days dave dittmer on his guitar… How sad they all gone including Peter . Pat Mike.. Dave .. werner . Pats wife .. All gone .. RIP but great memories

  35. Pieta says:

    Hi Leonie, thanks for the memories……one of my fav outside jocks as a punter….always positive by his smile….all the best to you and the family 👍

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