The Winning Form-sponsored Robert Khathi celebrated his 35th birthday at Kenilworth on Saturday with a 200-1 double for the Snaith Racing Team.
The Umlazi-born rider says that there is no greater motivation for hard work and success than a wife and four young children. Private schools, soccer coaching and ballet lessons, amongst the everyday ‘modern family’ demands, don’t come cheap, he says.
So it’s no surprise that his dedication and commitment knows no bounds – and his first word is that he’d absolutely love nothing more than to win the Cape Fillies Guineas on Saturday.
Robert is thrilled to have an engagement in the Cape’s first Gr1 contest of the summer. He rides Gimmethegreenlight’s daughter Roll In The Hay for owners Candice Bass-Robinson in the R1 million classic.
“I ran second on her in a sprint at Durbanville and she was also placed in the Western Cape Fillies Championship. She is a lovely filly with a touch of class and, while we are boxing in the big league and there are some really smart horses in the field, I think she deserves a place in the field and a chance to show her ability. It’s her first attempt at a mile and she should enjoy the long run-in of the summer course. We are also fortunate to have a nice barrier draw. At the end of the day, it’s a Gr1 and we all want to win it,” he says matter-of-factly.
On his possible best ride of the day, he points to Snaith’s Var mare Casual Diamond in the Gr2 Southern Cross Stakes.
“I won the Listed Laisserfaire Stakes on her last month over the 1100m. She has run close-up fourth and fifth in this race in the past two years. She is a kilo better off with last year’s winner Princess Rebel for a 3,60 length beating in 2018. That may not be a winning turnaround on paper, but she is really so well that I must fancy our chances!”
For a young man who joined the SA Jockey Academy in 2001 with a ‘dodgy command’ of the English language, and not knowing the front from the back end of a horse, Robert has matured light years into a polished sportsman and a talented jockey – and he values his position as a second choice rider to the powerful Snaith outfit.
Married to Simone, who does the fetching and carrying to schools and extra-mural activities, and with four children ranging in age from ten years to two months, Robert has developed a work ethic second to none and, depending on whether there is racing at Kenilworth in midweek, he travels from his Blouberg home to the Cape champions across the other end of the Peninsula at Philippi, and also rides work for Candice Bass-Robinson at nearby Milnerton.
“A large factor in any jockey’s success is being associated with the right stables and I have been very fortunate to cement my credibility and build faith in my ability with some of the best around.”
We asked him what he felt were the fundamentals of being a successful jockey.
“Live clean. Stay healthy. Go to bed at a sensible time. Set the alarm clock. Get out of bed and go to work. Get there on time. Apply yourself and become part of the professionalism. On raceday, listen to instructions and carry them out. And don’t lose your head and do stupid things, if you can avoid it,” he smiles broadly as he recounts how he ‘really and truly earned his riding fee’ on Tango With Tigers, who blew most of mankind out of the Pick 6 at Kenilworth on Saturday.
“He just wasn’t playing ball. He didn’t want to know about co-operating on the afternoon. He wouldn’t canter down. I had to lead him down. Then he didn’t want to go into the stalls. He is a gelding who behaves like a colt. But Justin (Snaith) is a master at getting them fit and he gave him plenty of the right kind of work. It did the trick. It was only Tango With Tigers’ fifth start and he must have some ability to exert all that raw energy before the race and still win,” he mused as he told how well his next winner Nexus had done.
“He hadn’t run since the Winter Derby almost six months ago. The 1400m was also a bit short for him. But I worked him and he felt well. He is a classy sort. I was really thankful to get the ride and felt that, on the summer course, that he was going to be my birthday present winner! We didn’t have the easiest of passages in running – we were bumped and carried in, and close to the line I had to take evasive action to avoid running on to the heels of the pacemaker. All the while I knew that Nexus was cantering underneath me. I felt we only needed half a gap to get there. I’m not sure my birthday would have felt as good as it did, had we not gotten there. This kind of horse really makes any jockey look alright,” he smiled.
Robert is focussed on delivering the best he can for the Cape trainers that support him so well. But he is happy to travel if he gets the call.
“My family is young. I love Cape racing. So it makes sense not to stretch oneself too thin and rather to focus here. But I am happy to travel to PE and anywhere else that I may get the opportunity,” he says as he tells that his year younger brother Sandile is based in the Eastern Cape.
Sandile has had his weight issues, which hasn’t made life easy for him.
“Ironically, when we attended the SA Jockey Academy interviews, I weighed 35kgs and Sandile weighed 33kgs. Sandile was their first choice as they were worried I’d get too heavy. But they said I could come along to the final interview and in the end we both got in.”
The brothers Khathi joined the 2001 intake at the world renowned jockey training centre alongside the likes of Mauritius-based Randall Simons, Chase Maujean, Sihle Cele, Lance Pagel, Sean Veale, Beth Martin and the late Sylvester Mtshali
Robert signed his papers in his first year and rode his first winner for the late Cyril Naidoo at Clairwood on 22 December 2002 aboard Teeny Bopper.
He was transferred to Cape Town in 2003, initially boarding with Gwen Heyns as there was no Cape Town Academy at the time. He was Champion Apprentice of the Western Cape in his final year.
After coming out of his time in 2006, Robert transferred to Port Elizabeth and worked for Gavin Smith, before veteran Milnerton trainer Billy Prestage persuaded him to return to the Cape.
“I won for Mr Prestage at my first meeting back on Moonlight Gambler in the Sophomore Sprint,” he remembers.
He has also clocked up some international experience along the way.
This includes Kenya in 2015, where his wins in the beautiful country included three of the ‘majors’ – the Kenya Derby, the St Leger and the Fillies Guineas. He also enjoyed a short stint in Bahrain in 2016 but cut his visit short and moved to Mauritius for the Shirish Narang stable.
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On looking back on his 16 years in the saddle, he says that, while personal drive and motivation come from within, he couldn’t have gotten to where he is without his family, friends, loyal support from top yards – as well as the staunch support of his sponsors, Winning Form.
“I wouldn’t change a thing if I had the chance to turn back time. I love this sport and am so fortunate to be a part of it all.”