Jockeys are not all the same – as much as cynical punters might like to characterise them as universally cocky or shifty. Different riders have different shades of strength: power and coercion; judgment of pace and timing; empathy and “connection” with a horse.
S’manga Khumalo would seem mostly to fall between the latter two – though he’s certainly no shrinking violet in a hard-fought finish.
All this top horseman’s talents were on display at the Vaal on Tuesday 16 February as he rode six of the nine winners on the programme. This fell just short of the national record of seven on a day held by Jeff Lloyd, Piere Strydom, Tiger Wright and Garth Puller (according to the records of notable racing enthusiast David Thiselton).
As far as “connecting” with mounts, many a racehorse owner will attest to how Khumalo manages to get nags to run for him when other well-regarded jockeys battle on the same animals.
In an interview with CNN, shortly after his momentous victory in the 2013 Durban July – when he became the first black jockey to win South Africa’s most prestigious race – Khumalo had this to say about horses: “They’re such loving animals. They might be big, but once you give them your heart, they’ll be very nice to you.”
Ag shame. But they were very nice to him over the next year as he annexed the South African jockey championship amid much rainbow nation-style rejoicing and comment on the nickname “Bling” – which celebrated his peroxided hair and diamond ear studs.
That championship season took its toll – as it so often does to title-chasers pushing barriers of exhaustion as they flit around the country to far-flung tracks in search of winners. Khumalo rode 1348 runners in the 365 days of 2015-2016, for 243 victories at a win-rate of 18%.
Next season, he eased off a tad, hopping into just 857 saddles for 143 wins and fifth spot on the national log. Trips abroad for international jockey challenges in Singapore, Hong Kong and the UK, along with injuries, suspensions and an ill-starred sojourn in Australia, saw Khumalo drift out of the South African limelight for a while.
He was 29th in the 2017-2018 campaign and 17th in 2018-2019.
No longer attached to the powerful Sean Tarry yard at Randjesfontein meant far fewer plum engagements. But work for trainers such as Alec Laird and St John Gray kept things ticking over for the man from KwaMashu outside Durban.
This 2020-2021 season has seen Bling back in the saddle, so to speak, and he currently lies third on the jockey log – behind second-placed Greg Cheyne and runaway leader Lyle Hewitson, who has had twice as many opportunities thanks to relentless travel.
It was appropriate that two of the trainers who have shown faith over Khumalo’s past few “quiet” years should saddle five of his six this week.
The jock arrived at the riverside course with prospects of a good day – which were realised as five of the six trotted up as favourites or joint-favourites. The only turn-up for the books was 10-1 shot Fred for Gray in Race 3.
On Wednesday, Khumalo takes a rest from his exertions (while Hewitson flies from Joburg to Cape Town and back for a hard day’s riding) before returning to the Vaal on Thursday.
The Thursday card doesn’t look nearly as promising as Tuesday’s in terms of Khumalo bookings, with only one potential favourite, Laird-trained Sea Viviscent in Race 7.
But good form and confidence are notable assets for any athlete, so we shouldn’t be surprised if Bling pops up in the winner’s circle yet again.