Tag Archives: Horse Racing

Bring The Bling ~ By Ashleigh Hughes

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.

Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal Photo Courtesy: Gold Circle

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.

Smanga 2

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.

Carry On Alice 27 May

Carry on Alice Photo Courtesy: Gold Circle



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.”


Johan’s Big Four ~ Ashleigh Hughes (Love Racing)

What is it that makes certain trainers rise straight to the top of their profession, and stay there? What do they have, that so many others don’t? Is it luck? Where one special horse ‘puts them on the map’? Perhaps some are talented horsemen, while others are hard workers? Is there a formula to this sort of success in training racehorses?

Girl On The Run winning the 1800m Gr3 Yellowwood Handicap, with Randall Simons in the irons.

Randall Simons (Left) Johan Janse van Vuuren (Right)

As I chatted to Johan Janse van Vuuren, I realised that, every one of those things have contributed to his immense success, in just 3 and a half years of training under his own name. His most successful raceday to date, was having a “Quartet” of feature wins on the Charity Mile raceday on 5 November 2016 at Turffontein Racecourse. The day’s win streak started off with Girl On The Run winning the 1800m Gr3 Yellowwood Handicap, with Randall Simons in the irons. Barely 2 hours later he was back in the Winner’s Circle with She’s A Giver, who won the 1400m Gr3 HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco Starling Stakes very easily, by 3.75 lengths, giving jockey Gavin Lerena the second of his 4 wins on the day.

She’s A Giver, who won the 1400m Gr3 HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco Starling Stakes ~ Owned by Laurence Werner

Laurence Werners pats She’s a Giver

A very long rain delay, pushed the start of the main feature, the R1 Million Gr2 Peermont Emperor’s Palace Charity Mile, forward by nearly two hours. It’s a unique concept for a race – there are 16 runners, who race over 1600m. Each horse is assigned a charity, as well as a local celebrity and media house, who do a lot of publicity and promotions for the race, in the lead up to the day. All the charities are given a donation, but the one associated with the winner, gets the lion’s share. The Janse van Vuuren yard had the favourite in the race, the Australian import, New Predator, who was again ridden by Gavin Lerena.

New Predator (Aus) powered to victory in the Charity Mile, having had a dream run throughout the race, sitting second on the rail around the turn, and having a clear run in the home straight. It was an extra special win for the jubilant Lerena family, as Gavin’s cousin, Kevin Lerena, who is the current South African Cruiserweight Boxing Champion, was the celebrity paired with New Predator. The Peermont Educational Trust Bursary Program was the beneficiary of the R100 000 first prize. It was a very emotional lead in for everyone, which due to a 2 hour rain delay, the owner of New Predator, Laurence Werners unfortunately missed, as he had had to catch a flight to London!

New Predator (Aus) winning the Charity mile ~ Owned by Laurence Werners

New Predator (Aus) winning the Charity mile ~ Owned by Laurence Werners

The very next race on the card was the Gr3 Graham Beck Stakes, a 1400m for 3yo colts and geldings. Johan’s horse Doosra, again ridden by Gavin Lerena, managed to prevail over the Mike de Kock trained Heavenly Blue (Aus), in a thrilling heads up, heads down battle to the line. Both Johan and Gavin had 4 feature race winners apiece, and both have described the day as being close to their most successful day at the races.

Johan’s horse Doosra, again ridden by Gavin Lerena, winning the Graham Beck Stakes, a 1400m for 3yo colts and geldings.

Johan’s horse Doosra, again ridden by Gavin Lerena, winning the Graham Beck Stakes, a 1400m for 3yo colts and geldings.

Your 4-timer of feature wins on Charity Mile Raceday must be close to your most successful day at the races? How did it feel, as the day was unfolding, to realise that you had gotten everything so spot on for each horse?

“I was actually quite relaxed on the day, as most of the preparations had gone very well. After our first win with Girl On The Run, I got slightly more confident. But then She’s A Giver won, and I got really confident with the other two colts, because I thought, on the day, New Predator and Doosra were my best two runners.”

And were there any challenges leading up to the day?

“Everything went really smoothly in the last two weeks leading up to the raceday, and the only slight hiccup we had was when She’s A Giver had a slightly elevated temperature the night before – it’s was just 38.4C, so I called my vets to come and evaluate her. They said there wasn’t much we could do, and we gave her some antibiotics, and reassessed her the next morning. She ate up well that night, and she responded to the treatment, and so we decided to take our chances and raced her”

Those sort of successful days are a long time in planning, and a lot of team work is involved. Who are the key members of your team, and what are their roles?

Yes, I’ve got a lovely team of hard working guys working for me at the moment. My main Assistant Trainer in the yard is Clinton Naude, and he heads up the team. I also have Kingston, who is from Zimbabwe – he is excellent. He is in charge of his own yard, within my stable, and he is very capable. He would be able to train his own string really well, if he ever decided to take out his licence, as he is very clued up. I also have Randall Simons who rides a lot of work at home for us. He is very professional, and I value the feedback he gives me. Hennie Greyling also does a lot of work riding for us. The vets are also an integral part of my team. I like to treat horse’s injuries proactively, trying to prevent injuries and problems, instead of waiting for them to happen, and then trying to fix them afterwards. My owners tell me that I really like the vets a lot, but I have learnt so much from them, and I rely on them a lot. These guys all do their bit, and none of my success would be possible without their dedication and hard work.”

Who are your biggest clients, and what sort of relationship do you have with them?

“I have two big clients in my yard, Laurence Werners and Jaap van der Vendal, and they have both supported me staunchly from day one. I have a very good professional relationship with both of them, and they are actually quite similar, in that they are very straight and to the point, much like myself. And so I get on with them both really well and we understand each other, which make things so much easier. They have actually become more than just clients though, as they have grown with me and my yard.”

Are you involved in selecting the horses that come into your yard from the sales? Do you do all the legwork yourself, or do you have a trusted advisor or bloodstock agent who helps you? You were always very keen on studying and researching bloodlines and pedigrees.

”I still do a lot of studying of pedigrees, and I still really enjoy it. I am a great believer in certain crosses with horses – certain sire lines will match better with certain female lines. So when the sales catalogues come out, I go through the book and earmark the pedigrees which I know my clients will also like, and then we go to the sales to assess those horses’ conformations to make our final choices. I have always been a massive fan of Fort Wood as a sire, and now also as a broodmare sire, and there are a lot of really good new sires which I think cross very well with the Fort Wood mares. I do most of the selections of horses myself at the sales. Sometimes a client may ask me to go and look at specific horse for them as well. But after seeing all the horses with the pedigrees we like, I sit down with my clients to decide which ones we like, and are going to bid for.”

How did you start out in the industry? What ignited your passion?

”I’ve been involved with horseracing for most of my life – as long as I can remember to be honest with you. My late Grandfather had a few share in racehorses, and his brother was also a few mares, which he bred from. I don’t think they were too successful at it though. I used to go racing, from a young age, with my father and grandfather, and I used to study the Computaform a lot more than I ever studied anything at school! I could not wait to finish school every day, so that I could get down to the local tote to put my Place Accumulator on that day’s racing. I used to get a few Rand for our school lunches, but that was used to pay for the bets instead. We would study form during our first break, and then run the 3km down to the tote after school, to get there in time to place our bets.”

You became a licenced Trainer in 2013, after having a 13 year tenure as an Assistant Trainer to former Champion Trainer, Geoff Woodruff. What are some of the most important things you’ve brought forward from there?

“It was very easy working for Geoff. He was always very forthcoming his knowledge, and when he gave us instructions to do something, he was always happy to explain why we had to do it. One of the main things I learnt from Geoff, is that you have to be confident when you make decisions. If you feel something is right, you must go with your gut feel and do it. Don’t second guess yourself when it comes to difficult situations”

How many horses in your string currently? Are you taking a string down to Cape Town for the season?

“I currently have 120 horses in my string, but I would like to cut back slightly to between 100 and 110. I just feel that it’s a more manageable number for my team. No I am not taking a string down to Cape Town, but I have sent New Predator and She’s A Giver down to Brett Crawford, to look after for us, as he did so well with Brazuca last year for us”

Racehorse trainers are famous for having superstitions or lucky charms, or certain things which they do on racedays, what are yours?

“I am a fairly superstitious person, but there is nothing I specifically do on racedays. Laurence Werner’s wife Tessa is a big believer of the balance of feng shui, and she has identified me as a ‘number 1’, which makes me a leader, and I have the strong personality that goes with it. She’s given me a couple of tips to use this to my advantage, which includes me wearing either water or metal colours at races, the blues or greys, as that is supposed to make me stronger”

Do you have any advice for any young people aspiring to become a trainer one day?

“Horseracing is a very tough industry, and one thing I do know, if you are not committed, and if you aren’t prepared to put in the long hours, then it’s not really worth your while pursuing a career in racing. It consumes most of your life, most of your time, and it becomes a lifestyle more than a job. But hard work definitely pays off!”