Plucked from obscurity in a small rural village and catapulted onto the national and international stage, S’manga Khumalo was the first black jockey to win the July, South Africa’s first black champion jockey and he had the distinction of clocking his 200th winner for the season aboard Jet Explorer in the third leg of the EC Poly Challenge at Fairview on Friday, 13 May 2016.
It’s been a long journey from KwaMashu, but the hard work, the injuries and controversies and the miles travelled, have all culminated in a complete jockey standing on the threshold of a second South African championship title. In the process the shy, slightly self-conscious young rider feeling his way into the glare of the racing stage has matured into a serious, focussed and self-possessed jockey who is starting to develop a firm feel on the reins of his talent and the doors it can open for him. Interestingly, he also seems to be having more fun than ever before.
In the driving seat
“Last season, whatever I did was focussed on winning the championship, but Gavin Lerena was equally determined and whatever I put in, he fought me off. I ran second to him, but I gave it my all. I guess he wanted it more than I did,” he admits quietly. “When my mentor, Felix Coetzee, asked whether I wanted to go for the championship again this season, I said yes. I’d had a month off in August while all the others were riding and I was 20-odd winners behind. He asked how I thought I was going to do it. I said I was going to work hard and travel as much as I could. I also planned to work hard at my stable and show them how committed I was to helping them. I’m very happy that Mr Tarry was champion trainer last year and that he’s on top again this season. It’s great that I’m also on top this year and I’m just glad to be part of the team. Mr Tarry also gave me the help and motivation to try for the championship again and I managed to catch up those 20 winners quite quickly.”
“I went from being 20 on the log, up to 10 and when I was lying 5th and the others were well clear, I thought I was never going to get there. But Felix made sure I was always focussed and convinced me I could fight for it. I thought I was working hard, but he made me work harder. When I got to 3rd on the log, I said to myself I’ve got to fight on and everything went from there.” Rather than being boastful of the achievement, he sounds oddly humbled by it.
“Two seasons ago, I rode 185 winners which won me the championship. Last season I had 198 winners, but I wasn’t happy with that and decided I need to improve. There are guys that have had more winners a season. I think Felix did his best at 270+ and Delpech holds the SA record for 334. When you look at those stats, you want to get better and try and reach them. I think that’s what inspired me to work harder and try and reach those goals. I think that’s why things have gone so well for me so far. There are also a lot of other people behind the scenes that help and support me a lot, especially my family. We come from a small township and don’t have any background in racing, so it’s not always easy and they have been great.”
“The July changed things for me, definitely. I did a couple of radio shows beforehand and said my horse was working well and that I expected to finish in the first three. A lot of people heard that and came to the course to see me ride. When the horse won, it was just another level. People were so happy! I had blond hair at the time and everywhere I went, people recognised me and were like ‘is it him?’ It felt great. People look at me differently, and they treat me with respect. I never saw myself going overseas, but I’ve had the pleasure of riding in an international in Mauritius, I’ve been to Australia, Hong Kong and ridden at Ascot.”
“My life is very different from where I started out. I never imagined myself being a jockey, but once I’m on that horse, everything changes and I just become someone else. When I’m riding, I’m at my best. I love what I do and I get a lot of joy from it.”
S’manga seems to have a lot of fun with racing and in particular, the winning photographs and post race formalities. “I’m always happy when I’m on a horse and I win. I always try and show my happiness and I started sticking my tongue out for the camera – it was a fun thing, to show that I love what I’m doing – and then some of the other jockeys also started doing it when they crossed the line. Like the Frankie Dettori jump – I saw other guys doing it and said to myself, why can’t I do it? In the beginning, people asked ‘Are you OK? You’ve only won a maiden – why are you doing all these funny things?’ and I said I’m happy and I enjoy what I’m doing. I see there are a couple of other guys who are also doing it now. For me, it’s great that I’m inspiring other riders and that they want to be like me. Like when I go down to the start and crouch down low – a few of the other guys are doing it too and it’s become like a little competition by itself to see who can get down the lowest. It’s playful, the guys enjoy it and it’s something fun for the public. We need more of the public to come to the races and watch racing at the course, instead of sitting at home watching on TV.”
“To be honest, I didn’t really know how far I was from my milestone at that point and I was going to be happy with 1 winner on the card. Yvette Bremner said Sherry was a nice sort and was improving and I just thought I have to make sure it comes through. Obviously Gogetthesheriff looked hard to beat in the Poly Challenge, and I thought I’ll just go out there and do my best. He won well and I was ecstatic. I didn’t want to miscalculate and say something about 200 when perhaps it wasn’t, so I first had to go back and check the stats and yes, it was 200,” he says with satisfaction.
How are you coping with the rigours of chasing the championship?
“I get a lot of mentoring and positive feedback from Felix Coetzee. Travelling so much means I don’t get to ride a lot of work, so I often don’t know the horses I’m getting on, but riding at all the different centres has taught me to judge horses and helped me develop a feel. Sometimes you might have a lazy horse that needs a lot of warm up and you have to take them down nice and fast. Some with natural speed you have to actually take down slowly or they’ll burn out and burn all their energy going to the start. Sometimes you take a horse down and think wow, it is so well, it gives you goosebumps.”
You still get goosebumps going to the start?
“Yes, of course. When you canter down and they give you that feel like wow, they’re just floating, then you know the only thing you need to do is get them in the best position possible and do what you know and bring them home.”
Are there ever any dicey moments?
“If you always go by the rules or what other people say, you are always just following. Felix has taught me to trust what I know and use my initiative. A good horseman gives the horse the feeling that you’re in charge. Once you’re in charge, you can do almost anything.”
Any horses you are excited about for Champions Season or possibly a second July win?
“I’m a person who always takes things as they come and I never want to get ahead of myself. The July is nearby and there are a lot of things going on around that, so I’m not sure what I might be riding in some of the big features. I have built a very nice partnership with Carry On Alice and I’m just focussing on that the moment. As far as the July is concerned, I’ll leave everything to Mr Tarry – he does the thinking and planning and I do the riding and bringing them home.”