Rachel Venniker making her mark
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Hall Of Fame jockey and now trainer Michael Roberts was instrumental in getting the promising young apprentice Rachel Venniker into the South African Jockeys Academy (SAJA) and the favour has been repaid as she has ridden six of his seven winners this season.
His regard for the only female rider in South African racing is increasing all the time and he put it down not only to her talent but her work ethic, attitude and race-riding intelligence.
Roberts admitted he had in the past had reservations about female riders in horseracing and clarified, "It is a very tough sport and dangerous sport but I saw so much potential in her. She was dedicated and the way she held and sat on a horse, she was so well balanced and had lovely hands, and then I compared her to some some of the first year apprentices. She lives for riding and deserved to be given a chance."
Venniker comes from a family of showjumpers and had been riding work for Wendy Whitehead and then started riding work for Roberts. Roberts put her on increasingly stronger horses and she handled it every time.
After a meeting with her parents, Roberts, Garth Puller and Kevin Wright presented her case to the riding masters of SAJA, who had rejected her application before.
Roberts said, "I told them I could not promise anything as I had clients to look after but that I would try and support her where I could."
Roberts could not have envisaged that of his 45 runners this season Venniker would have been on 27 of them.
He admitted, "I was going to give her a few rides and see how it went but it has really turned into a fairytale."
He continued, "Her biggest asset is she listens and learns quickly. She grasps race-riding and I don't have to keep repeating myself."
Roberts, like most top sportsmen, does not have much patience teaching learners who "can't grasp common sense."
Roberts has taught Venniker the importance of listening to instructions but also the importance of adopting a Plan B if necessary.
He said, "We sit down on a Friday, for example, and discuss how we expect each race to unfold. However, if A, B and C does not happen, the rider has the final say. A lot of kids you will say to them 'go to the front', then when the pace is hot they will go at 100 miles-per-hour and later when you question them they will reply, 'But you told me to go to the front.' Rachel, on the other hand, has ridden a good race from the front for me before after I had told her to drop the horse out. Disobeying or not even trying to carry out instructions can cause a problem with the owners. However, it is fine if you are able to tell them the rider tried to fulfil the plan but it did not work out. The worst thing about instructions is that the plan is usually just about guesswork, for example on Sunday we all thought Great Shaka would be in the front. However, if a rider misses the break and makes no effort to fulfill the instruction you are just going to say to them 'sorry I need a proper rider on my horse'."
Roberts continued, "Rachel has her own talent, I just try and put a bit more finesse in her, but race-riding is also about instinct. I can tell her what to do and not to do at the gates, for example, but it all happens so quickly and you have to commit."
Nothing annoys Roberts more than a rider who does not commit quickly enough and then spends much of the race looking around looking for a gap to slot into. He said looking around unbalanced the horse and exacerbated the problem.
He said, "A classic example of committing from the off was on Tupelo Honey in the first race of her hattrick (all of them with Venniker aboard). From the widest draw she had her on the rail within a 100 metres. She executed that as well as any top jockey could have done."
Roberts keeps an eye on Venniker's other rides during a meeting and tells her of any mistakes she might have made.
He said, "Not every horse will suit her, some need more driving than others. I once saw her bouncing on a horse and asked her to please not to do that. There are riders who can bounce effectively, for example Pat Eddery was able to do it in perfect rhythm with the horse. But everybody has their own style. I like the way Rachel sits on a horse, she is so well balanced, and I advised her not to change her style."
Roberts is realistic about her current 4kg claim which is the equivalent of a few lengths depending on the distance of the race.
He said, "She was an accomplished rider upon arriving at the academy as was Lyle Hewitson, Gavin Lerena and Luke Ferraris so the 4kg claim is a big advantage for apprentices of that calibre."
However, on top of her attitude and race-riding intelligence, another point which will help her have a long career is her work ethic.
Roberts said, "She has no arrogance and as fare as work ethic goes many jockeys could take a leaf out of her book. She is the first at the track and last to leave and will even be there on a Sunday if required. It might sound old-fashioned but in my opinion some things in racing never change. Riding work and the respect you show for your boss should never have changed. The way Rachel conducts herself she would have fitted in well in the old days."
Roberts only concern for her future is her weight as she is already riding at a minimum weight of 53.5kg.