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By Frankie Edozien

Saturday, May 14, 2011.

HARARE, Zimbabwe - The frenzied betting that engulfs horseracing enthusiasts in many countries kicked into high gear with the 137th running of the $2.1 million purse Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday of May.

Many here were glued to their televisions screens, as they will be when the Preakness Stakes is held in Baltimore later this month, and also in June when New York’s Belmont Stakes, the third leg of racing’s triple crown occurs.   

America’s racing season has begun with races are held each week.  Those who can’t go to the races can go watch and place bets in halls known as off-track betting parlors with video feed.

In Britain, the kick-off to the summer is a week of horse racing at the Royal Ascot. The alluring venue has been a magnet for bettors and their glamorous companions, for 300 years. 

In Africa, the business is a legacy of colonialism and in some places doing well. Races are run six times a week in South Africa. Kenya’s races tracks are still busy but Nigeria’s once glamorous racecourse in Lagos has long been a shopping complex and suite of offices.

But in Zimbabwe, a day at the races is still an exciting fun filled day for anyone who goes to Harare’s pristine Borrowdale Park. It provides an escape from the everyday stress of a battered but recovering, economy and the decades long political turmoil. 

“There are some races which are very popular like [those sponsored by] the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the insurance brokers and the Zimbabwean National Army,” said Robert Mukondiwa, a former racing commentator here.

“Those folks provide shuttle buses and it’s a fun day. It’s packed to the rafters. It’s everyone from all works of life; gardeners, housewives, maids right up to the top of the pecking order in terms of society,” he added.

Around the world, this niche sport is big business. In the U.S. alone, equestrian racetracks form the largest and most profitable segment of the  $12.2 billion racing industry. The thoroughbreds are as much stars, as the jockeys who ride them.

Mukondiwa, 30, points out that despite recent economic instability, the fields here have remained impeccable.    And admission is free.  “We have some of the best grounds on the continent.   As the economy gets better you’ll notice a lot more people are coming to the races and the number of horses fielded are getting bigger.”

Yet local jockeys, all of whom are black, aren’t thrilled.

On those race days, jockeys get the slimmest of pickings; the horses rejected by the higher profile foreign jockeys, who fly in for the races and then leave right after.  “Unfortunately there is a bit of race related issues in racing,” Mukondiwa added.

The races often figure six to eight horses ridden by jockeys from South Africa and or the United Arab Emirates who fly in just before race days and get their pick of the horses.

Michael Mangwendeza, who has trained at the Zimbabwe Jockey Academy (ZJA) since 2006 explained that owners love to pick jockeys from abroad. “You’ll find that a local jockey will get one or two rides while a foreign jockey will get six, seven eight, a full card in those two weeks.”

Mangwendeza, 23, added that many of the thoroughbred owners, primarily white Zimbabweans “don’t think we are good enough. But I believe a good horse makes a good jockey. If you get a good horse you will win. Most of the time we get third choice. Some of them can run, some of them cannot.”

Zimbabweans have been going to the races twice a month for years.  Its second city, Bulawayo had a race court dubbed Ascot but it isn’t in operation anymore.  Borrowdale Park and the adjacent stables are the center of equestrian commercial activity here.

Africa’s former breadbasket, a country of 12 million has seen a 5.9 percent economic growth in 2010 after years of decline, according to the CIA World Fact Book.  This was in part due to cessation of the local currency in favor of the U.S. dollar in 2009.

Horse owners and their trainers have told local jockeys the reason they pass them over is because they aren’t  ‘racing fit.’

Boniface Vengesa, another popular jockey explained that the current system keeps them that way: “because we have races twice a month and in S.A., they race six times a week,” he said. “If you make a mistake on two rides, it’s going to take you another two weeks to correct that mistake.”

Vengesa, 20 said ‘ride work’ – taking care of races horses and training them daily -- is plentiful in Harare. But jockey work, what they all train for, is elusive.

 “When it comes to races these youngster they are not given races. It is something that makes me feel sad,” said Clever Makanya, a groomer at the stables adjacent to the Zimbabwean Jockey Academy. 

Makanya, 49, has been grooming champion horses since 1979 and remembers the first time a black jockey made it through in 1984. Now there are more, but they rarely racing.

“Some of our jockeys seem like they’ve been left behind or don’t have much experience. But they do. It’s got a bit of problem since I started.  It didn’t change. This racism is always the same. Keeps going on and on and on. For now everything is not going in the right order.”

Several owners couldn’t be reached for further comment.  They are primarily among the 1 percent of the population that is Caucasian.

Still just because local jocks don’t get first pick doesn’t mean they never end up in the winners circle.

Vengesa has won twice with a stallion “Shadow Moon.” They had a rough start. The horse threw him off in 2008 and the novice broke his collarbone. But since, they’ve become a good team.

“He’s my favorite. He’s 4 about to turn 5. He’s the one who has done well to me.  And I’m grateful.”

Mangwendeza too, has had the rare win.

  “I’ve ridden this horse plenty times, he’s called ‘One True Moment’. I didn’t think I had a chance but when you get in the race you’ll be hoping for a miracle. That day he quickened for me and we won. In these five years I’ve only ridden 11 winners. That’s not good enough.”

But local jockeys trained at the Zimbabwean Jockey Academy now fear that to make it in horseracing they have to leave the continent. Having a ride or two every fortnight and making $160 a month for stable work and an extra $55 for riding in a race doesn’t cut it for them. If they win a race the extra goes up to $200.

“You get more money and expect to be picked for more rides at the next meet,” but nothing changes he added. “If I ride I will be earning $55 but the other one will be getting $1,000. Same day.” He hopes to make his way to the United Kingdom this year.

The winning jockey of the Kentucky Derby John Velaquez, got at a minimum $120,000 for that ride.

For Vengesa, who has a perfect jockey frame at 5 foot 3 and will finish his ZJA training next year, leaving is not an option he’s happy with. “I want to be a jockey. I’m still going to go out because you get more exposures but I still would want to come and ride and represent my country.”

Mukondiwa, now an editor with H-Metro, a tabloid daily newspaper, said that perhaps it will be a wake up call for owners if more of their jockeys are plucked away, like those who ended up in the U.K.

“They are doing quite well which shows that they were not too bad out here. If people start coming to poach these kids, that could actually spur some people on to employing them.”

Edozien is the Director of New York University Journalism’s Reporting Africa program and editor of The AFRican magazine.

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