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By Mike Moon

Horse racing correspondent


Rachel Venniker making Durban July history in ‘just another race’

Rising star to become the first female to ride in SA’s biggest horse race in 128 years.


The Hollywoodbets Durban July is “just another race with a fancy name”.

That’s what jockey Rachel Venniker tells people when they ask her if she’s a little nervous about making history as the first woman to ride in the July in the iconic race’s 128-year history.

The nonchalance is clearly a tactic to dispel lurking nervousness and illustrates the ultra-professional approach that racing fans have come to associate with South Africa’s sole female jockey.

Venniker does admit to being “very excited” at the prospect of lining up aboard a runner in the R5-million, Grade 1 handicap at Greyville racecourse at 4pm on Saturday 6 July.

Try, try and try again

“I’ve done my studying. I know what all the horses around me are likely to do in the running, and I’ve devised a strategy to outsmart them,” said Venniker earlier this week.

She will have had to tweak that strategy on Thursday as her listed mount, Without Question, was scratched by trainer Justin Snaith when the four-year-old gelding pulled up lame after a morning exercise gallop.

Fortuitously, Snaith also trains the first reserve runner, Hluhluwe, and Venniker’s booking was transferred to him – a three-year-old with, arguably, as good a chance as the scratched horse.

Venniker might be keeping the nerves at bay, but her heart would have skipped a beat at news of Without Question’s withdrawal. She has been here before.

Indeed, 2024 is “third time lucky” for the 22-year-old. In 2022, she was due to ride Red Saxon in the July, but a fall from the saddle and suspected concussion a week before the big day saw her ruled out. Then, last year, her early booking for the race didn’t make the final line-up.

But Rachel is very used to the maxim of try, try and try again.

It took her four attempts to gain admission to the SA Jockey Academy at Summerveld. Three times the officials there turned down her applications as they said she was too tall and heavy for a career in a racing saddle.

It took the weighty influence of riding legend Michael “Muis” Roberts, nowadays a trainer at Summerveld, to persuade the wise people of the Academy to allow her in, in 2020. She’d been riding work for Roberts and he’d seen the talent and its future potential.

She justified the faith of Muis in spades, becoming the country’s champion apprentice in the 2022 and 2023 seasons and graduating to the senior jockey rank in the current term.

Summerveld

She currently lies in 10th place on the overall jockey standings with 70 wins from 647 rides and a 10.8% winning ratio. She is a sought-after pilot in all the racing centres, though she remains based in KwaZulu-Natal, working principally for her “boss, Mr Roberts”.

Venniker has always been horse-mad, growing up in a riding family in the environs of Summerveld, near Hillcrest just outside Durban. Small wonder she gravitated to the state-of-the-art training centre and work riding.

Interestingly, she rides Durban July second favourite and last year’s runner-up See It Again every morning out of the Roberts yard.

She describes See It Again – who she partnered in his early races before master jockey Piere “Striker” Strydom landed the prized gig – as “a machine”.

“He’s an amazing animal and I love him to bits. I’m quite confused about wanting him to win and me to win!” she laughs. “I just hope we all come back home safely.”

Venniker says she is “realistic” about her chances of winning the July, given that the best horses in the country are in opposition and the race is a notoriously hard-fought affair.

“But you never know … if things go right for you…”

Hluhluwe will jump from Without Question’s original No 3 draw, a highly favourable spot, and is on offer at odds of 25-1.

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