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By Mike Moon

Horse racing correspondent

Rachel Venniker takes on the world’s best jockeys

The young KZN rider is in the running for big prize money in Saudi Arabia.

South Africa’s only female jockey, Rachel Venniker, who finished a brilliant third in the recent HWB Cape Town Met, will soon be testing her talents against some of the world’s finest riders – female and male – including her childhood idol Ryan Moore.

Venniker, twice champion apprentice and recently graduated into senior riding ranks, is in the 14-strong lineup for the International Jockey Challenge in Saudi Arabia on Friday 23 February.

The IJC forms part of the meeting of the Saudi Cup, now the world’s richest horse race with a purse of $20 million (R380 million). The event has rapidly grown in international importance thanks to the huge prize money and the high quality of the participants.

The visiting jockeys will be tussling over prize money of $100,000 (R1.9 million), with the champion on the day carrying off a cheque for $30,000 (nearly R570,000).

American jockey Luis Saez returns to defend the IJC title he won in 2023. Other notables joining battle are the UK’s Moore (the reigning Longines World Best Jockey), veteran Australian Damien Oliver, and current French champion Maxime Guyon.

Completing the male contingent are top Japanese jockey Ryusei Sakai and two local heroes, eight-time Saudi champion Camilo Ospina and current title holder Adel Alfouraidi.

The six women opposing Venniker will be France’s Maryline Eon, the US’s Katie Davis, Australia’s Alysha Collet, the UK’s Saffie Osborne, Victoria Mota, the 24-year-old daughter of top Brazilian jockey Alex Mota, and New Zealand’s Lisa Allpress, who starred in 2020 when she became the first woman to win a flat race in Saudi Arabia.

Challenging start

Venniker, who grew up in Hillcrest, a stone’s throw from Summerveld training centre in KwaZulu-Natal, has only ever wanted to ride horses.

She was turned down three times for entry into the apprentice programme at the SA Jockey Academy – because she was too tall.

Eventually, legendary jockey Michael “Muis” Roberts, who she’d impressed while riding exercise work, persuaded the academy to relent and admit her under a “special apprenticeship” exemption. Within weeks she was riding in races – and winning. Her first winner was for Roberts at Scottsville in July 2021.

She quickly established herself as one of the most sought-after jockeys in the country, finishing the 2021/22 season in 14th place on the overall jockey’s log. In 2022/23 she was seventh.

Venniker will ride in the four official IJC races, but says she is hoping to secure more bookings at the meeting.

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