Jockey makes SA racing history as he notches up 5000 wins

2014-12-01 08:28

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Jockey Piere Strydom wiped away a tear or three as he walked his 5 000th win into the winners’ enclosure at Cape Town’s Kenilworth Racecourse last Saturday.

“It had to do with the expectations of the people who had been supporting me to get to 5 000 wins. I had to win that race. When I did, relief, happiness and satisfaction brought on the tears,” he said.

Strydom’s nickname, Striker, is especially apt now given his strike rate in riding racehorses to victory. By chalking up his 5 000th win on Act of War in the Selangor Cup, he has become the only jockey in the history of horse racing in South Africa to reach this milestone.

Does the weight of the achievement sit heavily on the shoulders of the 54kg jockey?

“When people get behind me to reach a goal and I achieve it, it makes me feel good to know I’ve made someone happy with what I’ve done,” he said modestly.

The only other South African jockey who has come close to Strydom’s record was Jeff Lloyd – who now races in Australia – with about 4 400 wins.

The historic moment came with its fair share of emotions for the 48-year-old. Wearing a scarlet scarf with the number 5 000 studded on to it, he climbed on to a winners’ podium – and promptly choked up when asked to say a few words about his achievement.

“I felt like a wave had hit me; the enormity of what had happened got to me then.”

It might have taken 33 years to reach this landmark, but it couldn’t have come sooner for this likable 1.65m jockey.

“I only realised I was 100 short of 5 000 wins when a friend told me about six months ago. When I was about 20 winners short of the mark, the racing fraternity started taking note.”

Then he hit a plateau and didn’t ride winners for a while.

“The pressure must have got to me. I decided to became more focused and the wins came quickly.”

An entourage of supporters started following him to race meetings in the week of his Kenilworth win with the media circus going into overdrive that Tuesday.

“Photographers and reporters from the racing and non-racing media started turning up for that week’s race meetings,” he said, looking perplexed.

“I was at win number 4 998 on the Tuesday and was disappointed not to ride a winner at the Vaal Racecourse. I raced there again on the Thursday and got just one win.”

So he headed to Kenilworth with the realisation that something had to happen.

“I knew my horse had ability and I knew I had to win. The countdown had started with 90 winners to go and it was now time.”

So it is understandable that Strydom marked his momentous win by standing up in the stirrups and saluting a cheering crowd as his mount flashed past the winning post.

Strydom stands up to salute a cheering crowd as he crosses the finish line.
Picture: Alon Skuy/Gallo Images

His achievement is all the more remarkable when he said he didn’t want to become a jockey – he was afraid of horses.

His father is a former jockey turned racehorse trainer in Port Elizabeth and was determined that his son would pursue a racing career.

“He made me ride the horses in his stable during school holidays. When my cousins came to visit and asked to ride, I would hide in my father’s stable office. If you weigh 25kg, ride a 500kg horse and don’t appreciate the danger, then you are stupid,” he explained.

Riding racehorses was the last thing on the mind of the shy and timid 14-year-old. He was always top of his class at school and wanted to become a doctor.

But his father enrolled him at the South African Jockey Academy in Summerveld, outside Durban, without his knowledge. The academy offers an apprentice programme for youngsters who want to become professional jockeys. Strydom’s teachers begged his father not to take him out of school, saying he had an intelligent son on his hands.

“Well, if he’s so clever, then he will be the best jockey around,” quipped his father. So the skinny teen was shipped off to the academy for three years to finish his schooling and learn how to ride racehorses.

“I had no choice in the matter. I actually didn’t realise what was going on,” said Strydom.

He hated being at the academy.

“I was thrown into a whole new world. I was in an environment where I had to prove myself and one of the worst things was the bullying by the older apprentices.”

But being there did help him overcome his fear of horses.

Life was made tougher with the academy’s strict rule that new apprentices should have no contact with their families in their first six weeks there.

“I felt much better when I spent a weekend with family in Durban after those six weeks. When I returned to the academy, I said to myself: ‘I’m going to do this. I’m in it and I’m not giving up.’

It is this determination and a competitive spirit that has made Strydom rise to the top.

The six-time national champion jockey last took the jockeys’ title in 2011. He has also raced in Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Dubai, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Australia.

Strydom is philosophical about the future.

“I want to slow down a bit. I don’t feel I have to prove anything; I don’t have to be so competitive. It’s not going to be about the quantity, it will be about the quality – I want to ride quality horses from now on.”

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