Being a jockey is more than just an itch. Its a career you truly have to want to be in, not just chancing. What with permanently being on a special diet, fitness routine and possibly breaking a couple of bones
The horse is a regal and majestic animal. In a traditional sense, nothing says wealthy like owning a few of these kingly creatures. It’s no wonder horse racing would be a sport associated with the well to do. True, in the past, owners raced and bred their own race horses and thus the sport was a preserve of a privileged few. In the past few decades, however, there has not only emerged a commercial breeding industry, but also a sporting culture that people from diverse walks of life are increasingly beginning take note of.
Meet Kenya’s champ
Racing is not just about the horse. It’s a team sport, involving among other elements, the trainer and the jockey. When it comes to Kenyan jockeys, there is not a name more recognised than Lesley Sercombe. Rightfully termed as the country’s top jockey, Sercombe has 14 championships to her name, managing to acquire the title eight years in a row, in a sport that is mainly a male turf. I catch up with her as she is gearing to compete at the Fillies Guineas, one of the scheduled classic races in the Kenyan racing calendar. When you first meet Sercombe, you can tell from the get-go that she is no slacker. At five feet eight inches, she cuts a sturdy and fit body form – more so because this champion jockey is also a fitness instructor and a specialist in fitness nutrition.
“I started racing after my ‘A’-levels,” she says. “But I grew up around horses and have been riding all my life. I must have ridden atop a horse at the age of four or five and racing had been a dream of mine since I was a child, especially because my mom, Patsy, is a trainer. When I started racing, I was told I was too tall to become a jockey (most jockeys are 5’4’). However, I believe that if you really want something, you can do it, no matter what. I found that I was gifted and I had a natural bond with horses – they seemed to run for me.”
In those early days in her career, Sercombe went ahead to win her first championship as an apprentice (an understudy), earning her the title of both champion jockey and champion apprentice for that year. Approximately 20 years later, she and her champion horses have not stopped pounding the tracks. Racing, she says, is all about fine-tuning the horse to get it mentally and physically prepared for competition. It’s in this aspect that her mother and champion trainer, Patsy Sercombe, comes in. She (Lesley) stresses that she would not be where she was were it not for Patsy’s expertise, which has ensured that she (Lesley) has consistently been riding winners.
Racing – the sport
The most prominent racing derby in the world, The Kentucky Derby in the US, has been called ‘the most exciting or fastest two minutes in sports’. In Kenya, the Ngong Racecourse, which opened in 1954, is the only thoroughbred racing venue in the country. On average, there about 25 race meetings (competitions) annually, the most prominent one being the Kenya Derby. “Basically, we have about two meetings in a month, on alternate Sundays,” explains Sercombe, “then we have about five big cup races or classic races, such as the upcoming Fillies or the Derby. Classics are only eligible for three-year-old horses. Classics are also the most important to a racehorse’s career. It’s like winning an Olympic medal.”
One of the reasons why racing has become ‘affordable’ is because worldwide, there is a trend to buy racehorses as syndicate/ partnership. “For example,” Sercombe informs, “I have a group of 10 friends who bought a horse and they only pay Ksh3,000 for its upkeep. There is a horse sale at the end of June. Prices can range from 100,000 to a million shillings, depending on the breed. If 10 people come together and buy one worth Ksh100,000, each pays 10,000. They then find a trainer, which is where we come in. The keepers’ fee, that is to keep it at the stables and take care of it, is Ksh30,000 a month – that totals to Ksh3,000 a month.” There are people in Kenya who specialise in breeding, sometimes even importing stallions from as far as South Africa.
“We buy and start training horses at two years old,” she explains. “When they come in, I do all the prep work from scratch – called ‘breaking them in’ – I teach them how to bridle, to straddle, to be ridden, to canter, to gallop, then to race. Right now, we have about 50 horses in our yard, give or take. When we choose races for them, I will end up racing them in those races.
“When you buy a horse, you hope you will get a good gene (breed) from a line of winning racers, the same way you would expect Usain Bolt’s brother to be a good sprinter…you’d probably ‘buy’ him for a million bob without winking, right? So once in a lifetime you will get a horse that just stands out as a champion.
“Two years ago I had one, his name was Westonian. When I broke him in as a two-year old, I knew from feeling him and seeing him that he was going to be a champion.”
Sercombe says she is lucky that she is already in the fitness industry, which complements the rigours of horse training and racing. Outside the track, she stays fit by cross training – she cycles, runs, swims, boxes and lifts weights. She also does a lot of military style workouts at the boot camp she runs at least twice a week.
“In racing, it is imperative to have a strong upper body,” she explains. “But at the same time, you have to keep your weight down. I am 54 kilos and I have to maintain that weight, yet keep my strength. I have to keep my body fat and muscle mass low. If the maximum weight a horse can carry in a race is 63 kilos, and the minimum is 49, the weight of my saddle and I cannot be above or below that. It’s going to be me at 54, plus another nine kilos for the saddle. Similarly, if I have a horse that’s in the 55 kilos category, my saddle and I have to be 55, so I need a saddle that’s a kilo. It’s tough, but over the years I have perfected my training programme.”
As one would expect with most sports people, training is an all day, everyday thing. “I get up at 5am to pray and meditate. I go to the stables at 6am where I ride about 10 to 15 horses about four times a week, sometimes more. After that, I have meetings with my mom, Patsy, who is also my trainer. Then I am off for my exercise – I like taking my dogs (running) to the forest for about an hour as part of my fitness regime, on some days I take about six other jockeys with me to help with their fitness as well. After that I’ll do some studying – I have just finished my fitness nutrition specialist course and passed my exams. Then I’ll go back to the stables and just check on the horses to see that they are not injured, they are clean. Then on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, I do my boot camp from 5.30 to 6.30 in the evening.”
On a race day Sunday, Sercombe tells me she wakes up at 6am, have nothing but a banana for breakfast, then head off to the tracks to ‘stretch’ the horses she will be racing in the afternoon. Mid morning, she goes back home, run a hot bath and sweat for 20 to 30 minutes. “It helps me lose any extra (water) weight before going to the track to sort out my equipment for the race.”
“The reason for weighing horses, and pairing them according to individual ability is to balance out the playing field and make sure everyone has a fair chance of winning,” says Sercombe. “Categorising mainly depends on their age. The longest race for a horse is 3,200 metres; otherwise, main races go from 1,000 metres (a kilometre) to a mile and a half (about 2.4km). Basically, a horse will sprint through 1,000 metres the same way an athlete will sprint through 100 metres.”
Running is the horse’s specialty, with the thoroughbred being the fastest breed of horses in the world. Weighing an average 450 kilos and standing at about 64 inches, they can maintain an average speed of 70kmph over a 1.5km distance, making classic races truly ‘the fastest two minutes in sports’.
Like the fans who come to watch them, the thoroughbred show up groomed and dressed to the tee – a leather bridle is fitted on its head to hold reins in place and blinkers placed on the eyes to keep the horse from seeing anything but what’s directly ahead of him/her. The jockey sits on a saddle, while a strap stretches around the horse’s belly to keep it in place. They also wear plates, tiny aluminium shoes that serve as support during the race. Jockeys race in shirts that are unique to the horse’s owner, and change them depending on whose horse they are racing.
In countries where racing is big, it’s said that only about 70 per cent of thoroughbreds get to the race, while only about 55 per cent ever get to win a race. For example, of the 35,000 three-year old thoroughbreds in the world, only 20 line up in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby.
Since it costs money to maintain a horse, some owners, especially the ones whose horses don’t win, only get to recover the residue value of their horses at the end of their racing career by selling them, but value can be low. Most horse owners, therefore, are in the sport, not so much for the money, but for the thrill and the competition. All the same, one hopes they will acquire a champ and rake in the prize money.
On the other hand, jockeys are paid on a per race basis – even if they do not win. The jockey to the first, second and third horse receives a percentage of the owner’s share of the total prize. Like the owners, most jockeys do it entirely for the love of the sport as well. “Contrary to what people think, it’s tough been a jockey, that’s why I’m working to become an elite fitness instructor to complement it,” Sercombe puts in. “I am lucky because I work for my family, otherwise I’d really be struggling. Champion jockeys in other countries are driving Ferraris and all that, but that’s not the case here. But I love horses and find them therapeutic. Working with animals is something I wouldn’t change.”
About the thrills, Sercombe has had more than a fair share of scrapes while out on the racetrack. “Sometimes racing is more dangerous than the Grand Prix – I have broken most of the bones in my body – my arms, nose, cheek bone, wrists, thumbs, injured my neck, shoulder…20 years of racing and you will acquire injuries. Yet I keep doing it because that’s my life. However, I have learnt one thing in life, the fitter you are, the faster you heal. And your mind is very strong – so mind over matter.”
It’s a Kenyan sport!
“People need to get over the idea that this an elite sport,” adds Sercombe. “As a racing fraternity, we employ about three to four thousand people around the country. Moreover, we have a lot of talent here to nurture. For example, Richard Kibet, a jockey I trained who works with us was the most improved apprentice before he became professional, winning leading apprentice jockey. I was also trained by a Kenyan called Steven Njuguna. People need to come out here on Sunday and just spend time with their children. Children love horses, and other than that, it’s an amazing social scene, both on a personal and professional level.”
If you want to own a horse, the best thing to do is to contact the Jockey Club, Kenya’s governing thoroughbred racing body or to contact professionals, such as Sercombe. If you want to get on a horse, you will need to go to a riding school first. “The racecourse is only for racing, you can’t walk in and say you want to race, unless you want to become an apprentice, in which case you can come work with us at the stable as we teach you. You can become as an apprentice from age 15, the younger the better, actually the best age to start riding is as young as possible, maybe from four to five years of age.”
The Fillies Guineas
February 16, 2014. It’s race day at the Ngong’ Racecourse. By midday, the grounds are busy. The commentator’s voice rumbles on from the loudspeakers, pointing out tit bits on what’s coming up, spectators troop in with their families and take their place by the bleachers, others lay out picnics by the grass, children rush off to the bouncing castles, donkey cart rides and face painting, the food stands display an array of goodies. There is the ‘serious’ crowd – official Jockey Club members donning their custom uniform – dark blazers and tailored pants walk around taking care of this or that detail, others sit back far above the rest of the crowd, carefully yet easily, with wine glasses in hand, paying all their attention to the track below. The racehorses march around in their shiny coats and snooty air – one can’t help but ogle and be awed. Then there are the jockeys.
Sercombe lets me shadow her. Something akin to a backstage pass, it’s interesting to feel the air in the jockey’s changing room right before and after a race. For all the adrenaline involved in this sport, they are quite a tranquil lot. There is no invigorating pep talk right before or wild celebration after a race. This really is a stately sport. It’s also interesting to watch Sercombe relate with the other Jockeys – she is the only woman. Furthermore, in a sport most Kenyans still think to be a ‘mzungu’ thing, she is the only Caucasian jockey in the room. When I ask her how it feels to beat the guys ever so often: “Tactically, it’s good that I can outsmart them,” she says, in a matter-of-fact way. “There’s another woman who races once in a while but this year I have been the only woman in every race – so it’s mainly me and the guys. We all get on really well, but I have had a few male ego, chauvinist and sometimes even racist comments. However, I understand when you are racing there’s the adrenaline that plays in so I rather have to deal with that. But I think that on the whole, we have a lot of respect for each other.”
And they are off!
There’s a hushed silence. The starter sounds, the crowd gasps, the starting gates open and the crowd tempo rises. The horses are eager to go. And they do. Everyone rises to their feet, cheering their favourite thoroughbred. In a word, they ‘burst’ through the field. It’s one of the most exciting sports I have had the privilege to watch. In the final stretch, they make a furious dash of the finish line, not only aiming to win, but maybe break a record as well.
At the end of the Fillies, Sercombe and I troop back to the stables where she shows me her personal horse named Who’s Counting – a seven-year old majestic deep brown mare with a calm aura and a love for carrots. Of course, Who’s Counting does not race anymore, but as we stroke her velvety coat while she flips carrots of our palms with her tongue, I can’t help but marvel at the magnificent relationship between the jockey and the horse. It’s obvious that she and Sercombe have a strong bond “I have won several championships with her,” she says. “She kind of chose me, as opposed to me choosing her.” Right at this moment, within breath inches of Who’s Counting’s eyes, one can understand why racing a horse with mastery can easily be termed as a sport for kings.