While the profession pays handsomely for those who win, it is cruel and punishing when things go wrong.
“You could get killed when you fall,” says accomplished jockey Anton Marcus, one of several sought-after jockeys unlikely to take part in this year’s July.
Marcus broke a wrist in four places when he took a tumble while trotting around the Greyville racecourse parade ring. Others sustained more serious injuries in recent falls.
Gunter Wrogemann fell in a race at Turffontein racecourse in Gauteng two weeks ago, and broke his jaw and other facial bones. Doctors placed him on a ventilator.
Gavin Lerena suffered severe concussion and has been out of action for nearly two months, also after a fall at Turffontein.
Doctors predicted six-time championship winning jockey Pierre Strydom would be out of action for nearly two months after fracturing his neck during a freak fall at the Vaal racecourse in May.
Anthony Delpech, who also damaged his neck when he and his horse crashed in the closing stages of a race at Turffontein, was not as fortunate as Strydom. Delpech is expected to spend at least another four months healing on the sidelines after damaging a disc in his neck that required a bone graft to fuse two vertebrae.
“It was a very scary situation. I could have been killed or paralysed. It was the worst fall of my career,” said Delpech. “I’ve fallen plenty of times but this was the worst. Horses hit speeds of about 70km/* , so you hit the ground hard.”
His fall happened when he tried to barge through a narrow gap between two other runners in a drive for the finish line.
“I realised if one of those horses moved inwards slightly, there could be trouble. I went for it and got into trouble,” Delpech said.
He’s gutted that he’s not riding in the July. “I’ve ridden in 10 consecutive Julys and won on four occasions. I had hopes of bettering my record.” Delpech has also won the national jockey championship on three occasions.
Bernard Fayd’Herbe was on one of the horses Delpech and his ride attempted to power past.
“What Anthony attempted - and has done successfully in the past - shows why he is among the best in the country,” Fayd’Herbe said.
About falling in a race, he added: “It is the slowest thing that will ever happen to you in the quickest time - an adrenaline rush like no other, provided you come out uninjured!”
Fayd’Herbe, who started racing professionally in 2000, has won the July twice, including last year’s win with Marineresco.
His July triumphs are among his 33 Grade 1 wins - the highest level in horse racing worldwide.
He said the profession required daily dedication and devotion.
“There is no down time. If you want to stay at the top in this game, you’ve got to put in the hard work without compromise.”
This includes maintaining the perfect riding weight: 53kg in South Africa. Fayd’Herbe usually weighs in around 57kg.
“I have to make a lot of sacrifices, watch what I eat, spend lots of time in the gym, and do a lot of walking,” said Fayd’Herbe. “The day I’m unable to perform is when I will fall off the pace, and owners and trainers stop giving me their top horses to ride,” Fayd’Herbe said.
Smanga Khumalo, a two-times champion jockey and the 2013 July winner, is also well versed in falling off the pace because of injury.
In 2012 he injured his fibula after a fall and it was nearly five months before he could ride again.
“There’s nothing you can do when injured. You lose earnings and fall out of the reckoning with your stable. Luckily, trainer Shaun Tarry has been very supportive and gave me his best horses to ride when I returned,” said Khumalo.
Gold’s Circle’s spokesperson and publishing manager, Andrew Harrison, said falls in races were not common but there had been more than usual of late - surprisingly, mostly among more experienced jockeys.
Harrison said jockeys had a tough life because it was a case of “each man for himself” and only a few made it to the top.
“Those who don’t, barely scrape a living. Their earnings include 10% of the stakes over and above their riding fee,” said Harrison.
A typical working day started at 4am to do morning ride work for a few hours, and keeping their weight in check also required hours in a sauna before each race meeting, said Harrison.
About these challenges, veteran trainer Paul Lafferty said: “Some have little sympathy for jockeys when they can’t make their weight because it’s the profession they have chosen. Besides, local jockeys are among the best paid around the world because they receive 10% of the winnings. Therefore, we demand the highest standards from them.”