S’Manga Khumalo must have been walking on air, after he dismounted to the cheers of the crowd at the Durban July, as the first black jockey to win South Africa’s premier horse racing event.
That win, on the five-year-old bay gelding, Heavy Metal, meant that 28-year-old Khumalo had won three of the country’s major racing events in eight months. Heavy Metal gave owner Chris van Niekerk and trainer Sean Tarry back-to-back July wins, following Pomodoro’s victory in 2012.
It was a close finish. Heavy Metal—priced at 16-1—surged ahead with 350 meters to go; Run For It and Do You Remember were still in contention. It took power and perfect timing for Khumalo to steer Heavy Metal to win by a head.
“Those good decisions stem from great confidence. Ultimately it is the confidence and the sound decision-making that separate the champion men from the boys… In racing, it is a vital factor: the horse and rider get on very well,” says Tarry.
Khumalo said that Tarry never put pressure on him before the race and he was relaxed going into the starting pens.
“That is the way I like to be at all times,” he says.
Khumalo got the nickname ‘Bling’ after he dyed his hair blond in 2011.
“The only similarity between S’Manga and Piere Strydom is that they both have blond hair,” quipped van Niekerk after the historic win.
Seriously, van Niekerk thinks Khumalo could emulate the legendary three-time Durban July winner Strydom, who won his third title on Pomodoro. Tarry agrees, he says Khumalo was in a different class and had ridden a brilliant race.
“During the past three months, he won three major races. He always had talent. S’Manga needed to mature mentally, which he has done. His ability to win more Durban Julys depends on whether he is lucky enough to get the right horses. He needs to keep his standards high and get good rides… S’Manga must stay mentally alert and sharp, and retain the ability to make good decisions,” he says.
Van Niekerk agrees: “There is a good connection between S’Manga and Heavy Metal.”
That chemistry was mentioned by Laura Hillenbrand in her best-selling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend: “When a horse and a jockey flew over the track together, there were moments in which the man’s mind wedded itself to the animal’s body to form something greater than the sum of both parts. It’s easy to talk to a horse if you understand his language. Horses stay the same from the day they are born until the day they die. They are only changed by the way people treat them.”
Khumalo says building a relationship with the horse is vital.
“You must have a calming influence on the horse and know how to get the best out of him. You also have to know how he runs and what he prefers to do,” he says.
It seems to be working. When he piloted Wagner to the first of his so-called big three wins at Turffontein, in Johannesburg, Khumalo led from the start.
“I knew instinctively that Wagner didn’t like to have a horse in front of him. He loves to be a frontrunner, and that’s why I took the lead early on,” he says.
Fellow jockey Strydom has applauded Khumalo’s athleticism and power, saying it requires strength for a rider of 52 kilograms to guide a horse to victory. He also said the low riding style of Khumalo has contributed to his success.
On a day when Greyville racecourse paid tribute to Nelson Mandela during the Durban July, Khumalo acknowledged the great man.
“I don’t know where I would have been if it was not for Madiba, but I definitely would not have been here,” he says.
There is a chance that Khumalo may not have been there were it not for a chance meeting with sixty-four-year old Paul Sibisi, a racing fanatic who spent two years scouting the schools of Durban, on behalf of the South African Jockey Academy, looking for youngsters with a size two shoe.
Sibisi spotted the then 14-year-old Khumalo at Mzuvele High School in KwaMashu.
“He was the most disciplined young man I selected,” says Sibisi.
Selection for a jockey is a rigorous process and a small frame is essential. Would-be jockeys are measured from the foot to the knee to gauge how big they are likely to grow—even the size of their parents is taken into account. Many are called, few are chosen and the stakes are high—a good jockey can earn up to $6,000 a month.
“I vividly remembered the interview to join the academy in January 2000. I don’t think I would have achieved anything without the South African Jockey Academy riding masters, like Vincent Curtis,” says Khumalo.
“In terms of mentors, I always looked up to riders like Piere Strydom and Anthony Delpech, and the riding master Robert Moore.”
Khumalo has been among the top twenty riders since 2005, rode 52 winners in 2011, before a knee injury curtailed his progress.
He had a stint in Australia and rode at the Mudgee Cup before homesickness led to a return and the build-up to the purple patch of 2013. In April, Heavy Metal sprung a surprise in the R2-million Premier’s Champions Challenge.
The 40-1 chance put in a spurt 300 meters out. He charged past Shogunnar and defied Knock On Wood to claim the win.
“My improvement in the past few months stemmed from improving my judgment of pace. I have learned to make my move at the precise moment, perhaps at 200 to 300 meters. Earlier, I led the charge and the eventual champion would just sit and wait for the opportune moment, lobbying at the back. That’s no longer the case,” says Khumalo.
Good form continued with an emphatic win in a Pinnacle Stakes run over a mile at Turffontein. Again, timing was everything and in the run to the line he slipped, through a slender gap, past Gavin Lerena and charged clear to win by 1.25 lengths.
Yet, Khumalo was seen as a nearly man until his win at the Champions Challenge in the run-up to the Durban July.
On the day of the big win in Durban, Sibisi says many people were skeptical about a black African winning the July, but others bet their month’s wages on Khumalo. He watched it in a packed and raucous betting shop in West Street, Durban.
“People were shouting. It was so loud you could not hear the TV. When he won, everyone was jumping around and punching the air. One woman had put a thousand rand on a week before, at 16-1. You can imagine the joy,” says Sibisi.
The only man in the betting shop that day who did not have money on Khumalo—you guessed it—was Sibisi.
“Even now, when I walk around Umlazi people call across the street saying: ‘Your boy made me a lot of money,’” laughs Sibisi.
The first black African to win the Durban July is likely to make a lot of money for punters for years to come.