A unique initiative by Cape Racing to have professional jockeys racing against work riders (or grooms), proved a hit at Kenilworth last Saturday.
In a fitting finale to the summer racing programme, Lady Christine Laidlaw’s Khaya Stables sponsored the event.
Horse trainer Justin Snaith said: “Lady Laidlaw contacted me after a post-race TV interview, where I made a statement that certain work riders could compete against jockeys. She asked if this could be done - a race between jockeys and grooms, we said we would try... the Star Grooms initiative and Workriders Championship were born.”
A full field of 16 maidens charged down the Kenilworth straight course with T’Çhalla, under world class jock Grant van Niekerk fending off Picture the Moment, ridden by up- and-coming pilot, Luke Ferraris, with Paper Trail (Lungisane Geledu, a skilled work rider) and Gillian Anne (partnered by journeyman jock, Luyolo Mxothwa) completing the order of finish.
Grant van Niekerk, who is back in Cape Town after a stint in Hong Kong, said that he benefited from the luck of a random draw.
“I was fortunate to be on the best horse.”
Van Niekerk was full of praise for the competence shown by the work riders and in a show of collegial support, together with the other pro jockeys, decided to donate their riding fees and stakes earnings generated from this race to the Western Cape Grooms School.
Retired jockey, Craig du Plooy has been riding master there for the past 15 years, and he willingly took on the role of managing the work riders.
“The build- up was incredible and my guys were so excited to ride against seven of the best Cape jockeys, four of whom have established reputations internationally. Sure, it was intimidating but they faced up to the challenge. They couldn’t wait to get on with the job and remain so willing carrying out their exercises and training programmes. It’s been a big motivator at the school.”
Despite the spirited banter between himself and jockey representative MJ Byleveld when previewing the race, Du Plooy conceded there is a massive gap in race-riding ability. “Realistically, I didn’t expect much. I recall when coming back from injury as a jockey I could only get truly racing fit by actually racing, so being in a proper race with a big field can only be a huge benefit to my guys. All told, I’m very happy with the way they rode and proud of how they conducted themselves.”
In a poignant touch immediately after the pull-up, all participating riders guided their steeds in front of the grandstand where they saluted Laidlaw in a sincere gesture of thanks for her sponsorship and the cash prizes awarded by Khaya Stables to top performing grooms throughout the summer feature race season.
Nkosi Sibanda from Snaith Racing said caring for the thoroughbred is of paramount concern and is inextricably linked to the inter-dependant triangle of owners, trainers and grooms.
“This was a great way to showcase these unsung heroes in our sport,” du Plooy concluded. “They came to work throughout the Covid-19 crisis and are instrumental to racing’s daily activities. Hopefully, this can become an annual event, in addition to the regular monthly races staged specifically for work riders.”
Ex-Kenilworth Racing director, Jonathan Snaith, thanked everyone who made this a reality for the grooms.