One of the keys to a long and successful career is knowing that sometimes you need to push and sometimes you need to back off. The skill lies in knowing when to do what. Dual SA champion jockey S’manga Khumalo has been taking time out to do just that.
S’manga, who was last seen on our tracks at the Vaal meeting on 29 November 2017, has been on something of an enforced break to complete the second half of a medical procedure he had several years ago.
A broken leg suffered in a fall back in 2011 required surgery and a screw in his knee. “When I fell, I broke my tibia. I don’t think the doctor that did op knew I was a jockey and he put the screw straight in, just to get me by,” he explains.
Although the pin did its job, S’manga’s career hit its upward trajectory shortly afterwards and he never got round to making the time to take it out. “It should have been removed a year after it was put in, but I rode with it for another few years. Things were going well and I was chasing the championship, so I didn’t want to take a break right then.”
However, in the longer term, with general riding wear and tear as well as riding short, compensating for the knee screw resulted in compensatory issues, including severe back pain, which eventually became debilitating enough to force S’manga to seek help.
In early December, he sat down with his boss. “Mr Tarry is my main trainer, so I had to sit down with him and tell him what was going on. We had a meeting with Erich van Niekerk and then had a full medical assessment done. That’s when they found out I wasn’t aligned properly because of the knee and that was causing my back problems.”
“Because I’d been struggling with my back, we did some x-rays and tried to work out which side I was favouring more, which was the right side – the left side is where the problem was. Chiropractor Dr Mike Pritchard did try to align me, but said I would never be 100% unless we took the screw out.”
In addition, the screw was also found to be damaging the knee cartilage and it became clear that it was time for the screw to be removed. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ve been riding with these aches and pains for three seasons. It’s been hard and I just want to get it sorted out. If we can find the problem, at least we can try and work on it and fix it.”
“Because of Christmas and all the holidays and so on, I could only get the surgery in January, so I carried on working with the chiropractor and biokineticist through December to help make my leg stronger before the operation.”
Surgery was scheduled for 11 January 2018. S’manga was discharged two days later and has been working hard on getting back to the saddle.
S’manga reports that thanks to the efforts of his support team, plus Erich van Niekerk, his rehab is going ‘pretty great’. “I’d been seeing the chiropractor and biokineticist since early December and started working with them before I had the operation and that’s helped me recover a lot more quickly.”
In order to maintain his racing weight, he is on a calorie restricted diet and is logging his progress on the ‘My Fitness Pal’ app. “Erich has the password and checks up on me every now and then,” he laughs. “It is quite strict, but I’ve dropped a kilo, which was my goal. Being off, you think you’re going to pick up weight, but this time round, I decided to stick with the diet and everything the biokineticist and chiropractor said, so that I won’t end up having to waste at the end and the only thing I’ll need to work on is fitness.”
All being well, S’manga will start work riding again on 13 February and he is looking forward to putting his knee to the test and seeing whether all the hard work has paid off. “I haven’t done this before, so I’m excited for the 13th to see what we’ll do and also whether the exercises have worked and whether I’m still favouring one side.” S’manga’s biokineticist, Jessica Weston, will be going to the track with him on his first day back to gain a better understanding of the rigours of a professional jockey and assess – and if necessary – tailor his rehab accordingly.
Any surgery carries risk and with a jockey’s body the tools of their trade, their very profession hangs on a successful outcome. Although it’s still early days, S’manga is happy with the results. “I feel great. I do feel different – if only I’d had this help a couple of years back, I might have done a lot better, but it’s one of those things,” he shrugs. “At the time I was chasing the championship and doing well and I couldn’t think of taking time off to nurse myself.”
The racing industry has a notoriously short-term memory and with out of sight, frequently meaning out of mind, taking significant time off is nerve-wracking for any rider, but it’s been a team effort all the way.
“I didn’t want to do anything by myself and do the comeback by myself, but luckily I have the support of Mr Tarry and Chris and Erich van Niekerk. They know I’m doing well and they speak to the doctors all the time and after all my sessions they call to find out how I’m doing and so far it’s all been great. I couldn’t have done it without Erich and Mr Tarry’s help. I feel a lot better and they know I am getting better. I’m also grateful to my sponsors, Mauritzfontein and Wilgerbosdrift for their support while I’ve been off.”
S’manga is very competitive – how did he cope having to sit on the sidelines? “Mentally, I did enjoy the break. I lot of people say I did need a break. I’ve been trying for a couple of seasons to get to the top and haven’t had a break, so it actually helped.” In addition to the physical rehab, S’manga has also enlisted the help of sports psychologist Martin Scheepers to help keep him mentally focussed.
However, as always, it’s the team at home that have kept him going. “I’m not from a racing background and always say it becomes a lot harder if you don’t have your family behind you. I’ve had great support from friends like Muzi Yeni who spent a lot of hours with me, and my family who have been very supportive. You don’t pull through if you don’t get support.”
During his enforced break, S’manga has kept his eye in by following racing. “A lot of the big horses have been put away. Mr Tarry hasn’t run as many horses as he has over the last 3 seasons and even ran less over the Cape season, so the horses are rested and will be coming back fit and well. When we sat down and spoke about the operation, to help make me comfortable with the decision, Mr Tarry gave me the opportunity of having my pick of the rides when I get back. That really helped, because I want to come back and still have a bit of confidence and to have that support helps a lot.”
Back on Track
When does he hope to be back in the saddle? “Obviously training track fitness and race fitness are two different things. To start with, I’ll come to track and do my work riding and within a week I should know if I’m ready. If it all goes according to plan, I would say by the first week of March I should be riding in races.”
There are still a few weeks to go, but S’manga has had his stitches out, he is out of his knee brace and is off all medication. “I’ve got to try and feel where the problems are and you can’t tell when you’re on medication. I’ve been off everything for about a week now, so we’ll see how we go. I’ve got a lot of appointments with the biokineticist and the chiropractor before I get back to training and riding.”
S’manga was gratified to hear how many emails and enquiries have come in asking where he’s been and has promised his fans that it will have been worth the wait. “I’m feeling better, I’ve learnt a lot of new things and I promise I’ll be back different and better than ever.”