Dynamite in small packages: what it takes to be a top jockey

Champion jockey and three-time J&B Met winner Bernard Fayd’Herbe breaks down the weighty issues behind the glitz and glam of taking a horse to the finish line.

I have always lived around horses — my grandfather was record-holding multiple champion jockey Tiger Wright — and, apart from size, I think a love of horses is probably the biggest requirement to becoming a professional jockey.

I was born in Durban and grew up in Madagascar. When I was 14, trainer Neil Bruss saw me riding amateur races there and suggested that I go to the South African Jockey Academy in Summerveld near Durban.

The entrance requirements are quite strict when it comes to size. They’re obviously looking for small and light people, so when you apply they take your measurements: from shoe size, knee to heel length, etc. I got in to the Academy in 1996 and boarded there for the five years of my apprenticeship. Once you qualify, you’re on your own, but you’re also ready to take on the world — literally, because top jockeys are flown all over the world to race.

When it comes to jockeys, size really does matter — probably more so than for fashion models! They say you’ve got to have nerves of steel to race, and yes, there is an element of risk involved, but I just don’t think about that at all — you go out there and give it your best and make sure your horse gives it their best.

I do have one fear though, and that’s putting on weight… I don’t really have a small frame so I have to guard against getting heavy. The biggest disappointments of my career come when I find a very good horse, but can’t race it because we don’t weigh up.

But fitness is also part of the job description. A jockey has to be one of the fittest athletes in the world, so I have a gym programme that involves a lot of cardio to keep my weight down. I also run a lot, cycle and swim.

When I’m preparing for big race days my routine involves getting up at 04h00, sitting in the sauna for 30 minutes, then training horses for two hours. Once home, I run on the beach, maybe swim — you have to keep going. And that’s the other aspect of being a jockey that people probably don’t realise: you have to have a helluva work ethic and be a bit thick-skinned, because there are a lot of highs and lows.

I work between 15 and 25 horses, six days a week. We don’t just train with the horses we ride on race days — in fact, sometimes you’ll get flown abroad to ride a horse you don’t even know. But I try to spend a lot of time riding a horse before a big race; some days hard, some days slow.

Kenilworth (where the J&B Met is held each January) is my favourite racetrack because it’s the fairest track in the country, so normally the best horse wins. Greyville, for instance, is a bit tricky, with an uphill coming into a straight that only gives 400 metres to the finish. But Kenilworth is a flat track, that goes wide — when you’re riding around the turn and you swing into the straight, you’ve got 600 metres to the finish — enough time to get your horse to the frontline.

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