Bookmakers are being coy about the South African jockey championship for the newly minted 2022/23 season – unsurprisingly, as the top-level riding ranks look a bit uncertain and unsettled.
Some of the country’s leading hoops have declared plans to try their luck overseas, notably reigning champion Warren Kennedy, who aims to go to New Zealand, and Greg Cheyne, the Eastern Cape supremo who has decamped to the UK.
Most betting outlets have not stuck their necks out by posting early odds on the contest. World Sports Betting put up an online board last week but had second thoughts and removed it pretty swiftly. If memory serves, it had former champ and recent Durban July hero S’Manga Khumalo on top at 22-10. Muzi Yeni was next on 3-1, followed by Richard Fourie at 4-1 and Keagan de Melo at 10-1.
Few would argue that these four are the favourites to fight it out. But the order might be contested. For example, respected racing pundit David Thiselton has made Fourie the clear favourite after the Cape Town ace tied up a retainer with Fairview trainer Alan Greeff.
Indeed, it is largely a question of who gets the plumb stable bookings. And who is prepared to do a year’s worth of relentless travelling around the country in search of winners.
Kennedy landed two titles due to associations with new national champion trainer Paul Peter and Eastern Cape champion Gavin Smith – not to mention the pick of rides in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Fourie, who, for the first time in a brilliant career, went the frequent flyer route, finished second in 2021/22 – 63 winners adrift of Kennedy – with significant support from Justin Snaith in Cape Town, Sean Tarry and Mike de Kock in Joburg. His regular trips to KZN – as much for the ski-boat fishing as the riding – had him in huge demand. And he was often in PE, too.
So, tipping Fourie is not a bad shout. But Khumalo has shown he can plane-hop with the best of them; as have Yeni and De Melo.
Laying realistic odds on the jocks is wholly tied up with who shows the requisite ambition and energy early in the season. At the moment, it’s hard to tell – thanks to many of them taking a holiday after a gruelling last term, or a “holiday” in terms of suspensions they managed to postpone until after the lucrative winter season.
And, if Kennedy’s move doesn’t work out, the whole scenario changes.
Similarly, former two-time champion Lyle Hewitson and former top apprentice Luke Ferraris have both done well in Hong Kong and might have their licences renewed. But if, for one reason or another, they come home, the cat’s among the pigeons. Similar could be said for the excellent Callan Murray, who is trying to make it in Australia.
Outside of the names mentioned, who could put in a challenge?
Luyolo Mxothwa, Kabelo Matsunyane, Craig Zackey, Ryan Munger and Calvin Habib spring to mind. The latter two have been the busiest in the new season, with 66 and 70 rides respectively in just two weeks.
Former champ Gavin Lerena might put in a late run if he finds himself in contention midway through the season.
A wild outsider is the phenomenal Rachel Venniker, champion apprentice and the only female currently race-riding in the country. She was at about 40-1 in that WSB early market.
Yeni, who has come close to his deeply cherished dream a couple of times, is the current log leader with 11 wins from 44 mounts. Joint second are Habib, Matsunyane and Khumalo on eight apiece. The latter’s tally is from just 28 attempts.
With local racing in its annual “off season” of lower-grade action, the early jostling for position among the knights of the saddle will provide a fair deal of interest.