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Where Being Small is an Advantage - By Mohit Lalvani

Posted on - 05 Jul 2014

Where Being Small is an Advantage
“India’s answers to making great jockeys”
Mohit Lalvani in Durban
The group one Vodacom Durban July is without question Africa’s most important horse race and over a trip of 2200 metres, a field of 16 will perform before a crowd of about 50,000 spectators on the 5th of July at Greyville racecourse in Durban, South Africa. As part of the event, a select handful of international media representing Hong Kong, Dubai, Australia, Great Britain, Singapore and India have been hosted by Gold Circle over seven days of stud farm visits, track visits, game reserve tours and of course racing. Seven days of hard work, fun and for most an eye-opening experience that began on day one itself.
Graham Bailey is the headmaster of South African Jockey Academy (SAJA) and if you believed that getting into Harvard was selective, the process of getting admitted to the SAJA seemed even more so.
The making of a good jockey is a complex one and SAJA leaves almost nothing to chance. At the outset, every candidate must have completed grade nine to be eligible for the five year program which includes a 10th, 11th and 12th grade schooling schedule before they become apprentices for their final two years. While this in itself doesn’t seem too daunting, what follows next is a process that shows so much foresight that only the most likely to make it as jockeys will come through the system.
From the pool of applicants, each student’s height and growth parameters are first and foremost compared to an international growth chart that many of us as parents will often see in a paediatrician’s clinic.  At SAJA, only the 2% that are at the bottom of the growth chart are considered and while this itself seems so brilliantly simple, Graham Bailey explains that they don’t stop here. Once a potential student is plotted on the growth chart, they have their left wrist x-rayed to determine whether a child is behind or ahead of its chronological growth. Naturally, if an applicant is behind his chronological growth, then the risk of a growth spurt is possible and this would in many cases minimize the candidate’s chance of getting in.
The program is a gruelling one and not everyone is able to last the three years at the boarding facility which includes classrooms for riding and regular classes, gym facilities, simulators and a team of professionals that include physiotherapists, dieticians, former leading jockeys and a host of other professionals, The students are not just taught to ride but are also given business and media education to help them manage success. With about 33 students presently going through the program, we were presently surprised to learn that three of the students were girls. In what remains a predominantly bastion of masculinity, many jockeys’ rooms’ do not have as much as showers for women jockeys. While my experience has shown that this is primarily due to age old prejudices, at the SAJA thankfully this doesn’t exist and there is one young girl who is known to have the best hands of all her classmates managing to relax horses that the boys often can’t.
Cut to India where the void left by Pesi Shroff, Malesh Narredu, Aslam Kader and the riders of the past such as Vasant Shinde, has not been filled. The jockey schools in India are a long way behind the curve and while the case study of SAJA is something for the Indian authorities to consider replicating in time, the immediate need of the hour is a short term solution to filling this void. Simply put, the TAI or individual clubs should consider the sponsorship of one or two Indian riders each year to the SAJA. Whether or not they are bonded on their return to the sponsoring club is a matter of debate but either way, racing in India will be better for it.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author's personal views.)

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