Given the dramatic improvement in the earning potential of the 250 people to have passed through Joburg horseracing’s Work Riders’ Training Programme, it must be considered one of the most successful empowerment initiatives of its kind.
Set up towards the end of 1999 by the Racing Trust, which still manages it, the programme had long been a dream of former champion jockey James Maree. Once given the go-ahead, he wasted no time in setting up a four-month curriculum that would give work riders the skills to control a horse travelling at slightly less than 60km/h in races down the straight. Shortly afterwards an advanced course was created to further hone the skills of those work riders who showed above-average talent.
The programme has been a resounding success since its inception and Maree later set up a similar programme in the Western Cape.
While 20 people can be accepted in each intake, only 10 can be accommodated each day. In spite of the small classes, which are kept to a minimum on purpose because each rider can then be given individual attention, some 250 people have passed the basic course, while about 50 have graduated from the advanced course. Both courses have improved the earning potential of many previously disadvantaged grooms and opened up new career opportunities for several of them.
So far five have gone on to be granted special jockey/apprentice permits enabling them to ride professionally - Louis Nhlapo, his brother Sipho and Menno Malherbe as well as the late Pietrus Ndhlovu and LJ Katjedi, who both died in car crashes.
Others, like ex-champion work rider Abram Makhubo (unfortunately passed away in 2012) have travelled overseas, to ply their trade, competing for rides with work riders from every corner of the globe. Yet others have become freelance work riders for different trainers and their earnings have trebled or quadrupled.
Maree enthused: "In fact, one or two of these riders have so much talent that if they went to smaller centres and became jockeys, they could be champions. However, most are not prepared to sacrifice to succeed - they need to look after their weight and do the work. Nothing comes easily in this game. You must have the right attitude if you are to succeed."
Phumelela stages a race every week for graduates of the course - those work riders who have passed the basic course are allowed to ride in races down the straight, while the advanced work riders may ride in races around the turn, providing they have ridden in three videoed trials to ensure they are competent and pose no danger to other riders.
"Race-riding experience is essential because nobody can work a horse optimally unless he’s ridden in a race and knows what a horse is truly capable of doing. A rider becomes more aware of what is necessary in a race, so he can follow instructions much better on the training tracks. Also, the more a rider competes in races, the fitter he gets," said Maree.
Maree added that it was imperative that work riders were competent. "Although most work riders know how to make a horse go forward, they had bad habits. The smallest flaw in the seat, balance and grip can make a big difference. For instance, sitting too far forward or too far back can hurt a horse’s back. Back problems in turn lead to other problems.
"These horses cost millions of rand so it is important that the men and women exercising them every day know how to ride properly.
"We also try to develop a mindset so the work riders can correspond with the horses they climb on. Riding is a mental game between horse and rider - I guess you could call it horse sense, and you can see it first-hand in our leading jockeys. Piere Strydom is a mental rider, while Mark Khan is more physical. They each get on with different types of horses."
He believes the work riders have benefited enormously from his tuition: "The programme has given them a goal to reach and to do well – and not just financially," he says.
"Most jockeys are far too busy nowadays to gallop horses so it’s become important for trainers to have competent work riders - without good work riders, we might as well go home. So these work riders are playing a major role in horseracing nowadays, which gives them huge job satisfaction."
Many work riders who have passed the basic and advanced courses are now freelancers, riding for several trainers every morning, and their earning potential is much higher than when they were groom-work riders for a single stable.
Ten to 15% of the learners who pass the basic course have the commitment and talent to be invited back for the four-month advanced course, which is much more complicated. Riders are put into races day after day to test their nerve, decisions and reflexes.
"What we’re trying to do on the advanced course is ensure that these riders give their mounts every opportunity to win without being a danger to themselves or any other competitor in the race."
These work riders have to know how to:
- get out of the stalls quickly, place their mounts in an optimal position and not panic if they do not end up where they expect to be or if another horse intimidates them
- ride the horse from the correct position in the saddle; keep it balanced and stay in rhythm and stride
- switch off a horse - "it’s very important to be able to break a horse’s concentration in races round the turn. Every racehorse knows his job and will try to get to the finish line as quickly as possible (probably running out of steam before the winning post) unless his rider takes his mind off that part of the job and gets him to relax
- change whip hands without unbalancing the horse and
- have full control at all stages of a race.
"We’ve not had one serious accident," Maree said. "It’s as Gary Player says, the more you practise, the luckier you get.
The courses do not impact in the slightest on the learners’ jobs because they are taken to Maree’s Alewynspoort establishment two or three times a week after track-work and returned to base before afternoon stables.
The programme costs the trainer and work rider nothing and Maree says the biggest expense for the Trust is feeding the 12 equine "school masters".
He and his assistant, jockey Marthinus Mienie, are thrilled that a Work Riders’ Challenge worth a total of R50,000 in prize money has been introduced by Phumelela, the Racing Association (RA) and the Thoroughbred Horseracing Trust.
"Introduced in our 10th year, this was an exciting innovation that proves that the programme is successful on every level," he said.