Say “bonjour” to Seychelles-born, two-time SA champion Anthony Delpech, who will have the hopes and dreams of many on his shoulders when he climbs aboard Al Sahem in the SA Classic at Turffontein Saturday afternoon.
His mount is favourite for the big race, but riding short-priced horses holds no fears for “Bonji”, a nickname he got from his fellow apprentices way back in the mid ’80s because of his “terrible” French accent. He is ice-cool under pressure and his mounts usually respond by relaxing into their races, running their hearts out for the best possible result.
Inexperienced Al Sahem is a handful going to the start, which even Delpech’s way with horses did not quell in the moments before the Gauteng Guineas a month ago, but the jockey hopes he will behave better with a companion today. “It’ll make a huge difference,” said Delpech, who got Al Sahem to the line just two strides too late in the Gauteng Guineas.
He said he wouldn’t be leaving it so late this time, but he is worried about Al Sahem’s rival, Heavenly Blue. “I think it’s a two-horse race,” he said.
Durban-based Delpech, who turned 48 on February 10, has lived and breathed horseracing since his early days as an apprentice 33 years ago when he realised riding horses at about 50km/h could become a career, not just a way to duck out of school.
“When I first came to South Africa, aged 13 and in Standard 6, I struggled at school because my English was bad. I was looking for a sport, any sport, to get me out. I was tiny in those days and my teachers teased me, saying I should become a jockey. I went home and told my dad that was what I’d like to do.”
The rest is history. He joined up in the same year as other SA champions Anton Marcus, Mark Khan, Frikkie Vermaak and Marthinus Mienie. In further testament to their teachers – and their almost otherworldly understanding of raceriding – Delpech and Marcus are still competitive sportsmen late into their 40s.
Delpech’s first win was when he beat Michael “Muis” Roberts in a tight finish. Some believe Roberts, a former UK champion jockey, is still the best-ever produced in South Africa, but Delpech pipped him to the post on Thrasher.
“Michael thought he’d won so I went into the No 2 box. I was already back in the jockeys’ room when the judges called the result. No photo, but I’ll always remember beating Muis to win my first race,” he chuckled.
He’s not looked back since and has travelled extensively with his family – wife Candice and children Damon, 19, Chelsea, 16, and Brooklyn, eight. They lived in Hong Kong for five years and then in Singapore for two, spent two seasons in Dubai and had several short stints in Mauritius.
He’s also one of the few South Africans to have ridden in Japan.
He has 2 910 wins on record in South Africa, including four Durban Julys, and holds the record for the number of wins in an SA season – 334 in 1998/99. “I’ve also had more than 100 wins in Hong Kong, 20-odd in Mauritius and about 30 in Dubai,” he said.
Top horses he has been associated with include Hong Kong superstar Vengeance of Rain and Igugu. An athlete’s peak is generally short, but Delpech still ranks as one of the best in the country. That’s because of his passion for the game. “I love what I do,” he said. “And I’ll do it till the day I feel I’m not competitive enough for a top position.”
Nearly all his spare time is spent studying horseracing: his favourite TV channel is Tellytrack and his read of choice is Computaform, though he says he’s “the worst tipster”. “I’m terrible, stuck to the TV, but I love to keep on learning and learning,” he said.
But what can a veteran learn from watching less-experienced riders? “You never stop learning,” he said. “I like to watch the international races, people such as (Brazilian-born Singapore and Hong Kong champion) Joao Moreira, who I believe is the greatest jockey in the world right now. Not his riding style, but the decisions he makes. I can see them clearly. Sometimes I say I’d never make that decision, probably because of all the criticism if I got beat. But he can afford it. He’s so good that even if he loses a race, it’s not the end of the world.”
When he needs a complete break, Delpech plays golf. And he loves a night socialising over a well-cooked steak. Perhaps he’ll have cause to celebrate with a big one tonight?