S'manga Khumalo recently became the first black jockey to win the prestigious Vodacom Durban July - Africa's biggest horse race. He has come a way from a poor childhood in Durban.
"He is the man of the moment," said Louis, a middle-aged South African. At the track, he has just placed a bet on horse number six - S'manga Khumalo's in the next race at the Turffontein racecourse.
S'manga Khumalo has become well-known amongst South African jockeys. Piet, another better, described the 28-year-old rider as someone who has "that urge to win." As the race kicked off, Piet said, laughing, "Give him a donkey and he will want to win on that donkey."
S'manga Khumalo's horse speeds off at around 70 kilometers per hour (44 miles per hour). Each of these long-legged animals is worth several million South African Rand. Khumalo as well has been highly valued since he won the Durban. On this sunny but windy afternoon, he is scheduled for eight races. If he wins, he gets 6.5 percent of the prize money - averaging 300 euros ($395) per race.
Louis and Piet scream and jump off their seats: "Number six - he did it!"
Khumalo was satisfied about the win, but added that he had won on this horse last time he rode it. So "I was pretty confident," he said while stepping onto the scale in order to be weighed.
It's all about weight and height for these dainty men on horses. Khumalo measures 52.5 kilograms (116 pounds) and 1.54 meters (5"1'). One wonders what this wiry man with short bleached hair and two sparkling crystal earrings eats. Once back in the jockey's quarters sipping a coke, he admitted: "We eat nothing. You starve yourself so you can make the weight." He is attempting to keep his current weight, with which he belongs in the lightest category of jockeys.
Nowadays Khumalo is confident about his size, but that was not always the case. He recalled how, growing up, he was always the smallest. He counts himself lucky to have ended up in this sport, where small men can make it big. "I was happy to fit in somewhere. All the time I had wished that I could be taller, so that I didn't get picked on."
Rags to riches
Khumalo's father was unemployed and his mother was a domestic worker, so they didn't have much to support him and his four siblings. He grew up in a crime- and poverty-ridden township north of Durban at the height of South Africa's fight against the racist apartheid regime. They had to move around multiple times to escape the violence of the early 90s.
He struck it lucky at 13. A talent scout of the Durban jockey academy found Khumalo at his school, measuring him and asking him if he might be interested in horseracing. Khumalo decided to give it a try - he was too small for soccer or basketball.
Khumalo said he was terrified of horses when he met his first at age 14. Today, he said they are his best friends, and that he trains, plays and talks with them every day.
During his five-year apprenticeship at the Durban jockey academy, he had to clean horses, muck out stables and stick to strict timetables and workouts. There were a couple other black jockey trainees, but so far he's been the only one to make it.
Winning South Africa's richest race in Durban was like a dream come true, he said. Crossing the finish line "was a feeling I'd never change it for anything in my life … I was electrified." The crowd of 50,000 cheering fans send shivers down his spine: "If I had had wings that day, I would have flown." Despite having won pretty much every race in South Africa, he remains humble: "I was just glad to be a part of it."
Khumalo became the first-ever black jockey to win in the Vodacom Durban July's 116 year history - horse racing was historically dominated by whites. In the past, Black people were not even allowed on the turf. He saw his winning the major race as historic: "I just proved to a lot of trainers and a lot of owners that as Black people, we can do it as well."
Khumalo is now one of the top 10 jockeys in the country, and enjoys his success - although he has to work hard. He rides 80 to 90 different horses a month, usually seven days a week. So far, he has bought a big black German car, a house, and a flat, and he has moved his mother into a more affluent area.
However, he added that horse racing is a harsh business. A 500-kilogram horse can easily crush a jockey if he falls, and trainers "just want you if you are good at that time … if things go bad, they can't use you."
Rivalry and jealousy amongst the jockeys is rife as well, so Khumalo also has to fear sabotage. Khumalo frowned recalling three serious accidents. As a father of two small children, he remains and well aware that "you have to look out for yourself."
But Khumalo tends to look on the bright side. He's busy living his dream, and already has his eyes on the next title: "My next big goal would be to become the first black champion jockey of South Africa," meaning winning more races than anyone else in a season. If that happens, Khumalo could make history - again.