Roberts won 11 South African jockey championships. Then he went to Britain and took their title –with a monumental freelancer effort in 1992.
The first mention of the boy taking up a career as a jockey came when he was at school. A new teacher told him to stand up behind his desk in class. “But I was already standing up,” he recalls with a chuckle many years later.
The nonplussed teacher exclaimed, “You should be a jockey!” and an idea was planted in the mind of Michael “Muis” Roberts, the finest South African rider ever to throw leg over a horse.
Becoming a champion takes more than a notion in the head of an Afrikaans-speaking boy from a farm near Oudtshoorn. But the ambition that saw him eventually get enrolled at the SA Jockey Academy in Durban was carried into the saddle and racing immortality. People who remember an elfin-faced teenage kid from those early days comment on the steely determination that was already evident behind the cherubic looks.
One fine day at Pietermaritzburg’s Scottsville racecourse in 1969, 15-year-old Muis rode his first winner, in his sixth race ride, on a filly called Smyrna.
“Apparently I went past the post patting this poor horse and kept patting her right to the weighing room. And then I gave her a pick of grass from the verge in the winning box. No one had seen such an emotional jockey before,” recalls Roberts, now 66 and a successful trainer at Summerveld in KwaZulu-Natal.
That winning filly was a stroppy bint, fond of fly-jumping. She went well in gallops, but no jockey could win on her. The calmness and balance that became the foundation of Roberts’s career did the trick.
(Yours truly, also a teenager, was at Scottsville that day and remembers the moment well. I stood on a balcony with my parents, watching Smyrna enter the winner’s box. My mother commented on how tiny the boy in the saddle was: “He doesn’t look a day over 10.”)
Roberts went on to won 11 South African jockey championships. Then he went to Britain and took their title –with a monumental freelancer effort in 1992.
His several years of riding in Britain included a stint as stable jockey for Sheikh Mohammed, the biggest racehorse owner in England, and saw the “Mighty Mouse” land umpteen group races and even a Classic or two.
Mtoto, who he partnered to five Group 1 triumphs including the King George V and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, was the best nag he ever sat on. Champion Stakes hero Indian Skimmer was the top filly. In South Africa, Sledgehammer gets the nod over such revered horses as Sentinel, Bold Tropic, Sun Monarch, Majestic Crown, Ted’s Ambition and Wolf Power.
He rates his “finest moment” as receiving the acclaim of a crowd of 200,000 people after getting Lando home in the Japan Cup in Tokyo.
In among all those international feats, he popped home in 1997 to land his one and only Durban July, aboard the scrawny gelding Super Quality.
These heroics are celebrated every January at Scottsville, scene of his maiden victory, with the Michael Roberts Handicap, a Listed event over 1750m.
Muis was still riding competitively when this honour was first bestowed. And, yes, the fairytale came true when he rode the winner of his own race in 1991 aboard a horse called Dutch Flyer and lifted the trophy, a bronze of Mtoto.
He retired from the irons in the late 1990s due to a bad neck injury suffered in a fall in the UK. It was a bitter disappointment as he believed he could have continued at the top of the game for a few more years.
However, showing characteristic grit, he went about his new career – and has thus far managed to saddle four winners of the Michael Roberts Handicap as a trainer.
“Obviously I get a tremendous kick out of winning my own race,” Muis told me. “I prepare horses specially for it, and it’s a bit like planning to win the July and pulling it off.”
That’s not the case this Saturday, 16 January, as Roberts is without a runner in the 2021 renewal.
He’ll be at the meeting, though, handing over that much-coveted trophy – and saddling three of his charges in other races on the card.
South African horse racing needs all the heroes it can get. Mercifully, it’s got a huge one on hand in Michael Roberts.
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