Nicci Garner
4 minute read
24 Jul 2013
7:25 pm

From ‘Bling’ to the real thing

Nicci Garner

S’manga Khumalo, who recently became the first Black jockey to win the Vodacom Durban July, was getting ready to hang up his saddle and riding boots a year ago. Now he’s making headlines across the country after winning three of South Africa’s four major races in the space of seven months.

Smanga Khumalo

What changed his life? Nicci Garner spoke to “Bling”.

Jockey S’manga Khumalo is on top of the world this month. He won South African horseracing’s most prestigious prize, the Vodacom Durban July, and then last weekend rode nine winners, five at Turffontein and four at Ngong Racecourse in Kenya.

Khumalo, who his fellow jockeys have nicknamed “Bling’’ because of his diamond earrings and blond hair, has always been regarded in horseracing circles as a rider with loads of potential. However, it’s only in the last eight months or so that the 27-year-old has started to fulfil that promise. He’s gone from “Bling’’ to the real thing!

Admittedly, he has been given better rides generally – although nobody could say that his mount Wagner in last December’s Sansui Summer Cup or his 40-1 ride Heavy Metal in the President’s Champions Challenge in April were exactly the form choices.

Punters’ low expectations of both runners did not deter Khumalo. He likes to hold his horses up for a late dash, and produced both Wagner and Heavy Metal at just the right time in those races.

Both the Summer Cup and the Challenge are among the “Big Four’’ on the local racing calendar and he added another major title to his CV in the recent Durban July aboard Heavy Metal.

No other jockey has won three of the four in the same season. The only major he has not won is the J&B Met and he has yet to ride in the Cape’s biggest race.

He is hoping that will change next season because of his affiliation with trainer Sean Tarry, who has long been his mentor, and owner Chris van Niekerk.

“That’s one of my ambitions for the 2013-14 racing season,’’ he said. “The other is to become the first Black rider to win the jockeys’ championship and with the support of Mr Tarry and Mr Van Niekerk, I believe it’s possible.’’

Khumalo has always been a jockey known for his balance and good hands, but until this season there seemed to be something of a misfire in his profile. Perhaps he lacked the passion or the dedication?

“No,’’ he replies. “Those have always been there. My problem was that I had a couple of falls. I broke a leg in the one and my thumb in the other.

“Once you break a leg, things are never the same again. You’ve got to change how you ride. It took a while to adapt. And my hand took a long time to heal.

“When I came back from my hand injury I was riding scared. I was trying too hard not to ride hard enough. I watch for other riders making mistakes and I would not commit myself in races. I lost a lot of races because I only saw the danger. I let myself down.’’

One day, late last season, he was getting ready to call it quits. “But I know I’m good at what I do. I couldn’t just walk away.’’

So he set about changing his attitude with the help of former jockey Donovan Habib.

“He’d had many injuries through racing and told me not to be nervous about what’s happening around me. He said that I must do my best on every horse and that these things come and go – if it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.

“That was a turning point. I decided to put in the work and take the falls. If they come, I won’t let myself down again.

“The success has come the harder I’ve worked and I’m now getting the chances to show off my talent. And as I get more confident, the horses I’m riding are doing better. My confidence is making them confident.’’

Saturday’s five winners at Turffontein (including all four legs of the Jackpot) equalled his haul in Kimberley on 7 September 2006 and he did ride all four winners of the Jackpot at Fairview on 4 January 2008.

Last Sunday he flew to Kenya for the final race meeting of the season at Ngong, where the Stewards Cup was being run, and bagged four winners.

“I often go to Kenya because I’d rather be racing than sitting at home,’’ said Khumalo. “I’m on the wave and I’m riding it through.’’

While he might have dedicated his Durban July win to ailing former President Nelson Mandela, his other successes are for his family partner Petunia, daughter Percia (5) and Kaiden (3).

“I have a very busy schedule and I love what I do, but I spend all my spare time with my kids,’’ he said.

He’ll be back in Durban this Saturday hoping to cap a glorious season with another red-letter day for Tarry and Van Niekerk.

His rides include Gold Onyx in the Gold Cup, Golden Slipper winner For The Lads in the Thekwini Stakes, SA Nursery winner Willow Magic in the Premier’s Champion Stakes and Happy Archer in the Gold Bracelet.

They will have many supporters and Khumalo does not want to let his fans down!