It’s not often one gets to witness a true “rags to riches” story in real time. To see that person become not just very successful but a national champion in their field, is something very special. S’manga Khumalo is that person. He is a record breaker and a trend setter, a person looked up to and adored by a whole legion of fans around the country. He is the first black South African to ride the winner of the Vodacom Durban July and the first black South African to win the national Jockey’s Championship – twice! He has risen above extreme adversity to become one of the most successful jockeys in our country’s history.
Khumalo grew up in KwaMashu, which was one of the most violent areas in South Africa, during the apartheid era. The unrest during these troubled times was at its zenith during his early school days. His mother was a domestic worker and he grew up poverty-stricken, with very limited opportunities in every aspect of his life. He was one of 5 children – he has one brother and three sisters. Being exceptionally short in stature, he was often picked on by fellow schoolchildren. He dreamed of growing taller to defend himself.
He was at Mzuvele High School when the scouts from the South African Jockey Academy came to talk to the pupils there. He was approached immediately because of his small size but he was very sceptical about what they were suggesting. Horseracing was a very white-dominated industry in those days, and Khumalo could not see himself being part of that world. He’d never even touched a horse in his life at that stage. But in July 2000 his mind was changed. His interest in racing had been piqued and he started reading the racing sections in the local papers. Khumalo saw that the late Gift Funeka was going to be the very first black jockey to ride in the Durban July. His mount was a tall dark bay gelding called His Nibs (NZ), who was trained by Anil Maharaj. His Nibs (NZ) finished unplaced in the race but Funeka’s ground-breaking ride was enough to inspire Khumalo to follow up with the Jockey Academy.
When he entered the Academy, Khumalo was quite overwhelmed. The cultural and language difficulties seemed almost insurmountable but the SAJA are world renowned for their one-on-one guidance of their apprentice jockeys. The staff made sure he was not left to flounder and he picked up on everything very quickly. That year also saw Robert and Sandile Khathi, Sihle Cele and the late Sylvester Mtshali join the Academy. They all formed a firm friendship and with each other’s support, they all flourished as apprentices.
Most apprentices are relocated to other centres when they have completed their third year at the Academy itself. Khumalo was relocated to Zimbabwe and with support from Lisa Harris and Kirk Swanson, he rode his very first winner there. The Johannesburg Jockey Academy master at the time was Robert Moore – a ex-Zimbabwean himself. Moore quickly realised that Khumalo was an above average rider and recommended he be relocated to Johannesburg.
Being apprenticed to a trainer like Alec Laird is a very strong boost for a young jockey’s career and it certainly was the catalyst for Khumalo’s tremendous success. Based at the North Rand Training Centre in Randjesfontein, Khumalo rode work for a number of the bigger trainers who train from there. Not only was he getting rides from the Laird stable but Sean Tarry also recognised his potential as a rider so he gave him many opportunities to ride some top horses. Khumalo also rode a lot of work at Turffontein where he found the support of Joe Soma and Chris Erasmus.
By the time Khumalo graduated from the Jockey Academy in 2006, he’d ridden approximately 120 winners in total. Every jockey dreams of riding a Gr1 winner and his chance came up in March 2011 aboard St John Gray’s superstar mare, Dancewiththedevil. Khumalo rode the tenacious mare to victory in the R1 Million Gr1 Horse Chestnut 1600m, beating a field of colts and geldings by 5.5 lengths. A mere 17 days later he won a second Gr1 aboard Dancewiththedevil – the Gr1 Empress Club Stakes. A year later he partnered the mare again and won the G1 Horse Chestnut 1600m again, beating the boys once more. That was just the start of Khumalo’s meteoric rise to the top.
On 1 December 2012, Khumalo won the Gr1 Sansui Summer Cup aboard the Joe Soma-trained Wagner. The Summer Cup was first run in December 1888 and is one of the biggest racing events on the Johannesburg racing calendar. Khumalo has always held Soma in high regard and often mentions him as one of his early mentors. “He’s tough to work for but very fair. And he gave me many opportunities at the start of my professional career”.
The Gr1 victories did not stop there and in April 2013, Khumalo piloted the Sean Tarry-trained Heavy Metal to win the Gr1 Premier’s Champions Challenge. That race is always a good indicator for Durban July potential and in 2013 it was true to form. Heavy Metal dug deep under Khumalo to beat the Snaith trained Run For It by just 0.3 lengths.
But this was no ordinary victory. S’manga Khumalo became the very first black jockey to win the Gr1 Vodacom Durban July. It was a sensational moment for everyone involved but possibly most of all for Smanga’s mother. “As I came to the number one box down at the grandstand, my mum was there in front. She was screaming and thanking all the people that made it possible and also looking back to her family and to our ancestors. She was thanking all of them, from the grandmother to great-grandmother – because they watch over us. They’re like our ‘guiding angels’. She was overwhelmed and happy.”
As a youngster Khumalo often referred to Nelson Mandela as his hero. He said that Mandela had changed the course of history which allowed people like himself to have an opportunity to be successful. Before the start of the 2013 Vodacom Durban July, there was a 67 second period of silence to pay respect to Mandela, who was gravely ill at the time. In the post-race interview, Khumalo dedicated his win to his hero Madiba and there was not a dry eye anywhere.
Khumalo’s winning streak meant that he was in with a very good chance of winning the national jockey’s premiership. And even though he had made history at Greyville that Saturday winning the Durban July, he had 4 rides at Turffontein in Johannesburg the next day. He decided to forego the celebrations and so he was in good form the next day, riding another winner. At this stage he was riding in races five days every week, literally travelling the entire country to chase as many winners as he could. It was not in vain and for the second time in a month he made South African history, winning the National Jockey’s Championship for the first time. He was the first black South African to achieve this!
It was not easy winning the jockey’s championship for the 2013/ 2014 season, which is always hotly contested every year. Khumalo travelled the country to ride 1381 horses to win 185 races. His nearest rival, Richard Fourie, rode 143 winners to finish second. In third place was Khumalo’s long-time friend Muzi Yeni, who rode 142 winners. The following season Khumalo finished second to Gavin Lerena. They rode 220 and 198 winners respectively. It was in the 2015/ 2016 season that Khumalo really showed his mettle, winning the national championship again. This time he had 243 wins from 1348 rides.
In early 2014 Khumalo secured the ride on a little bay filly trained by Sean Tarry called Carry On Alice. She made her debut in the Gr3 Pretty Polly Stakes, which is rather unusual, and she finished a creditable third behind the very useful Majmu (AUS). She won her next two starts also under Khumalo, including the Gr1 South African Nursery, against the colts. This was just the beginning of a very fruitful relationship between Khumalo and Carry on Alice. He rode her in every one of her victories, which included five Gr1 wins all over the country. She rounded off her remarkable career at Scottsville Racecourse on 27 May 2017, winning the Gr1 South African Fillies Sprint. This brought her tally to 11 wins from 29 starts, with 13 places and R4 586 562 in stakes. It was a dream partnership for all involved.
Khumalo is well-known for his trendsetting fashion sense and his nickname “Bling” comes from his trademark diamond stud earrings. He is the South African dream personified. He grew up in abject poverty and rose up to the very top of his game, in spite of the many challenges he has faced. He has moved his mother out of the township and bought her a house in a more affluent suburb. He continues to support her and his other family members. They are always at the races to support him especially on the big race days. When asked if he has a “woman behind the successful man”, he always refers to his mother. “She is my pillar of strength. Without her, there is no S’manga Khumalo.”