It took the influence of riding legend Michael “Muis” Roberts finally to get Rachel Venniker through the doors of the SA Jockey Academy at Summerveld. The young woman has since justified the faith – in spades.
At the weekend, the 20-year-old became South Africa’s champion apprentice jockey, finishing the 2021/22 season with 70 winners from 570 rides – 16 clear of nearest challenger Kaiden Brewer. Currently the only female riding in South African racing, she was 14th on the overall jockeys’ log.
Her performance over the past year has won her respect and plaudits from the most hard-bitten racing aficionados, with many already saying she’s the best female jockey the country has produced.
The only disappointment of the term was missing out on a chance to become the first woman to ride in the Durban July in its 126-year history, when a fall and suspected concussion a week before the big race saw her lose her booking on outsider Red Saxon.
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Venniker might not have become a jockey if officials of the Jockey Academy at Summerveld in KwaZulu-Natal had had their way.
She tried three times to gain admission to the academy’s apprenticeship programme – but was refused as she was deemed to be too tall and there were fears she would soon be too heavy for race riding.
Already matriculated, Rachel was in demand as a gallops rider for trainers at Summerveld training centre – and had won work-rider races at full meetings at Greyville and Scottsville racecourses. She was also an assistant in prominent trainer Wendy Whitehead’s yard, learning the tricks of a demanding trade.
From the age of four
In short, she was horse mad. Her father Brett was an international-class showjumper, and mother Marian also an equestrian of note. The parents had baby Rachel on horseback from the age of four. She and her three older sisters grew up in the horsey area of Hillcrest, their home a five-minute walk from Summerveld – so she didn’t have far to go to pursue the dream.
Rachel was, and still is, super fit, being a running fanatic and working out in much of her spare time. (The rest of it is spent on reading and art.)
But she was just too tall for the racing dream.
Until Muis stepped in. Nowadays a trainer with a 50-strong string at Summerveld, Roberts noted on the gallops that the teenager had “a nice seat, good hands and excellent balance”. He should know, having been champion jockey of the UK and 11 times champion of South Africa.
A fourth entrance application for the academy was submitted and Roberts went along to argue the case. For good measure, they took along another former national champion and now trainer, Garth Puller, and former Zimbabawe champion Kevin Wright.
Against the firepower of that lobby, the riding masters relented and granted Venniker a three-year “special apprenticeship”.
Most youngsters enter the academy when they are about 14 and must complete five years to qualify as full jockeys. But Rachel got the special deal as she’d already matriculated and had a solid background with horses. (Two-time national champion Lyle Hewitson, now riding very successfully in Hong Kong, had a similar apprenticeship.)
Within weeks, Venniker was race riding and soon had her first winner – in July 2021, on the filly Calulo for Roberts at Scottsville.
She finished that month, and the 2020/2021 season, with four wins from 36 rides. The winning didn’t stop – even after she quickly shed her weight allowances: 4kg, 2.5kg and then 1.5kg.
Amazingly, a brand-new rule for the 2022/23 season means she regains her 1.5kg allowance – in perpetuity. All female riders now get that minimum allowance, as part of a drive to entice more young girls into the game.
Three weeks before the July, Rachel picked up a chance ride at Greyville for visiting Highveld trainer Joey Soma. The horse didn’t place, but Soma liked the way Venniker went about her business. Next thing she knew, she’d been given the chance of a lifetime – only to have it snatched away when a skittish horse dumped her at the start of a race.
And the future? For now, home is where the heart is.
“I’m very happy where I am, at Summerveld. I love this place. But eventually I would like to ride overseas – particularly in Hong Kong, the UK and Japan.”