The academy of big dreams for small men

2013-07-14 14:00

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Smanga Khumalo made history by becoming the first black rider to win the Vodacom July last week. Paddy Harper visited the winner’s former school.

There’s still a powdering of frost on the grass around the furrowed training track at the SA Jockey Academy as two apprentice riders thunder around a bend on their massive mounts.

It’s just after 7am. The duo and their classmates at the prestigious 10-acre Shongweni training facility have been up since 4am. By 9.30am they’ve finished work riding and have had breakfast and a shower.

Then their academic day starts, with Grade 10 to Grade 12 classes conducted by in-house teachers.

At 3.30pm, school’s out. The apprentices, or “appies” as they are referred to, get back to work, mucking out the stables and feeding the 20 thoroughbred former racehorses that each trainee is assigned to look after from day one of the five-year apprenticeship.

Here they’re in the hands of a team of experienced riding masters, including our guide for the morning, former jockey Stephen Jupp, who, with the academic staff, mentor their charges in addition to teaching them.

After mucking out, it’s cleanup, dinner and homework into the evening, a hard day’s work by anybody’s standard. The 50%?dropout rate speaks volumes.

“These are five hard years here,” says Jupp, who has been a riding master since the academy moved to Shongweni from Marrianhill in 1972. “This is very physically demanding on these kids. With the academic work as well, it’s tough, very tough.”

Founded in 1958 in Durban’s Currie Road, the academy and its training centres in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg produce all South Africa’s registered jockeys.

Funded by the industry and supported by the private sector and government grants, it boasts an impressive 100% matric pass rate while its reputation for racing excellence draws apprentices from as far afield as Hong Kong and Mauritius.

The appies also have an in-house biokineticist, a dietician and medical staff at their disposal, as well as audiovisual facilities and a state-of-the-art equine simulator to teach them posture, balance, stick use and how to hold the reins.

Training a jockey is an expensive business. Headmaster Graham Bailey pegs the annual cost at around

R220?000 per appie in year one, with costs tapering off to around R120?000 a year when they start riding races and earning purses for wins and places.

Part of each appie’s winnings goes into offsetting costs. The bulk goes into a trust fund they access when they qualify.

There’s also big money on the other end. A good jockey can easily take home R1?million a year.

“Jockeys are top-flight professional athletes,” says Bailey, headmaster since 2009. “It takes a massive amount of discipline and hard work to achieve what they do. People see the glamour moment when they cross the finish line but have absolutely no idea of the amount of work, dedication and preparation that this takes.”

At present, there are 52 apprentices in various stages of training. The first three years are spent living at Shongweni, with the young riders branching out to the satellite centres once they matriculate. By year two, some are already riding competitively up to three times a week, getting the feel for the real thing.

There’s a very old-school sense

of discipline about the academy,

with trainees addressing adults as

“sir” or “ma’am” and standing up as a sign of respect when adults walk into the room.

Mandla Ntuli (20) a gold-toothed 20-year-old from Daveyton in Gauteng, reckons he’s going to be the next black man to win the July after this year’s historic winner, Smanga Khumalo, a graduate of the academy.

“Give me two more years. I can win it in two years’ time,” says the diminutive youngster, whose only awareness of horse racing before the academy was his granny, Elizabeth Nyembe. “Gran “played the horses for fun”. She’s so proud of me. She watches me racing on TV at home,” says Ntuli, who has won 14 of his 200 races as an apprentice.

Ntuli is excited about the years ahead.

“I had never thought about this as a career. I always wanted to be a soccer player. Then I was introduced and decided to give it a try. This is great. I’m really benefiting from this.”

Headboy and 2012 top academic achiever Donovan Dillon (19), a

fourth-year appie from Glenvista, Johannesburg, has already won 56 of the impressive 800 races he has under his belt.

“I’d never ridden a horse before I came here,” says Dillon. “I was a bit nervous, but I wasn’t scared. Then I realised just how awesome it is.”

And his first win??“It’s indescribable.”

Dillon hopes to become a trainer after retiring from active racing.

“I’m big for a jockey, so I know that I may not last that long in the game. My aim is to become a trainer so that I can use what I’ve learnt and extend my career.”

Bailey believes Khumalo’s win will bring new energy to the game.

“It’s a huge achievement and we are immensely proud. We did our part, but the credit must go to him. He’s the one who did the work, who was up at 4am every day. It’s a marvellous achievement.”

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