SA Jockey Academy; nursery of champions

clockwise from top left; Lyle Hewitson, Andrew Fortune, Felix Coetzee, Piere Strydom, Michael Roberts

The South African Jockey Academy is regarded as one of the best facilities of its nature in the world. A list of alumni from the institution makes for some impressive reading. Graduates from SAJA have won jockeys championships all over the world.

Michael “Muis” Roberts, an eleven-time national champion here in South Africa, defied all odds and went on to be UK Champion Flat Jockey in 1992. Our rich history and association with Hong Kong racing goes back to the late 80’s, when Bartie Leisher became Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey in the 1987/88 season. This was just the start of the South African Jockey Academy graduates’ total domination of the Hong Kong log. Basil Marcus started his impressive run in the 1991/92 season. He won three consecutive championships before conceding to Tony Cruz – who started his riding career in the UK – in 1994/95. The following year saw Marcus regain the championship, and this was the start of an 18 year dominance by SAJA trained jockeys. Robbie Fradd took the title in 1999/2000, and then Dougie “The Durban Demon” Whyte had a record-setting run of 13 consecutive championships!

Jeffrey Lloyd has now retired from the saddle, but after having won multiple South African and Mauritian Jockeys Championships, “The Gov” emigrated to Australia where he set the tracks alight. He won the Queensland Jockeys Premiership three years in a row, 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18, breaking the Queensland Metropolitan and State records in the 2016/17 season. That was the same season he won the Australian Metropolitan Jockeys Premiership.

SAJA graduates are highly respected in every racing jurisdiction and there are currently a number of South African-trained jockeys riding all over the world. While there has been much success internationally, there are South Africans whose achievements at home are just as impressive. In July 2018, former South African Champion Anton Marcus rode his 100th Gr1 winner. Smanga Khumalo has won the National Jockeys Championship twice in the last 5 seasons. In May 2015 multiple South African Champion Piere Strydom rode his 5000th winner. Lyle Hewitson won the National Jockeys Championship as an apprentice in the 2017/2018 season.

However, being a jockey is not for everyone. To enroll at the Academy one needs to go to one of the assessment days which take place around the country twice a year, in March and August, which applicants must attend. The exact dates for these assessment days for each major centre are published on the SAJA Facebook Page. There are certain biometrical requirements for applicants and they are checked on the assessment days. A potential candidate must be between the ages of 15 and 20. They must be between 150cm and 160cm tall and they must weigh between 38kg and 47kg. At these workshops the size, stature and fitness levels of each applicant are assessed. Applicants who meet the criteria are then invited to the Final Interviews in October after which a final selection for admission for the following year is made. Assessment and Open Days are held all around the country in March & August every year.

Applicants can only begin their Apprenticeship in the year that they turn 16, so may only apply when they are 15 and are in, or have completed, Grade 9. The Academy only offers Grades 10, 11 and 12 as well as a Post Matric Year. Apprentices may join in Grades 10 and 11 or as a Post Matric. The entire apprenticeship training course averages 5 years. Here is a breakdown of what can be expected in each year:

1st Year

1st year Apprentices participate in theoretical and practical training programmes that includes 1 hour of fitness training, 4 hours of school, 3 hours of riding lessons and 3 hours of stables duties 5 days a week. The modules covered by our 1st year Apprentices include the following: Stable Safety (including personal protective equipment), demonstrating an understanding of Equine Welfare; Horse Care and Grooming, Restraining an Equine, organising and monitoring the Feeding and Watering of Equines, Recognising and Managing stable and un-mounted vices in Equines and Tacking up an Equine.

1st Year Apprentices are each given one of the Academy horses to look after and in this way not only learn the basics of horse care but also form a bond with horses. 1st Year Apprentices also complete the Equine Qualifications Authority of South Africa Module 1: Professional Groom Course which includes the following subjects: Blankets and Boots, Grooming 1, Yard Management 1, Equine Physiology and Behaviour 1 and Tack 1.

In terms of horse riding,most apprentices have never sat on a horse before and in their first year will progress through the basics through to riding horses at the training tracks. This is covered in the following three modules: Developing riding proficiency, Riding a horse in a jockey seat on a sand track, Exercising race horses at various paces on a sand track.

2nd Year
2nd Year Apprentices complete the Equine Qualifications Authority of South Africa Module 2: Professional Head Groom Course which includes the following subjects: Tack 2, Equine Physiology and Behaviour 2, Grooming and Turnout, Travel and Trucking, Lunging and Yard Management 2. The rationale behind our Apprentices doing Equine Qualifications Authority of South Africa Modules 1 and 2, is firstly to give them an understanding of how to care for horses which are, after all, the integral part of the racing industry and their future.  The second reason is for them to achieve a Stable Yard skills qualification, which will always be useful in their careers.
Once the Jockey Coaches feel a 2nd Year Apprentice has reached a level of riding proficiency that would enable then to compete in races safely, they are taught the Racing Rules and are tested on these thoroughly before being allowed to apply the National Horse Racing Authority for their Apprentice Jockey License.
Once awarded their Apprentice Jockey License a 2nd Year Apprentice will begin with their Qualifying Rides which are 5 rides up the straight course and 8 rides around the turn. These are normal rides in a race where the Stipendiary Stewards and Jockey Coach on duty review each race and ensure that the apprentice has abided by all the rules of racing. If the apprentice has abided by the rules the Stipendiary Stewards and Jockey Coach will then qualify that ride and it will count towards rides required by each 2nd Year Apprentice. The 2nd Year Apprentice must complete the 5 rides up the straight course first before progressing to complete the 8 rides around the turn.
Once 2nd Year Apprentices have completed their Qualifying Rides, they may then accept rides from trainers that are both up the straight and around the turn, as they begin their race riding careers.

3rd – 5th Year

3rd to 5th Year Apprentices focus on their race riding with the goal of riding out their claiming allowance and achieving the 60 Winner Mark.

All Apprentices are given a claiming allowance to assist them to compete with qualified and experienced jockeys in a race, similar to the handicap system of golf that allows players of different skill levels to compete against each other. An apprentice starts off claiming 4kg, which is deducted from the weight that a horse has to carry in a race. Once an Apprentice has won 20 races, that drops to a claiming allowance of 2,5kg. Once an Apprentice has ridden 40 winners, that drops to a claiming allowance of 1,5kg and once an Apprentice has ridden 60 winners, they lose their claiming allowance and race at level weights with qualified jockeys.

An Apprentice who has ridden 60 winners is also awarded with the coveted White Blazer that distinguishes them from the other Apprentices who wear Navy Blue Blazers.

3rd to 5th Year Apprentices work closely with their Jockey Coaches conducting video analysis and racing simulator training to try and perfect their jockey seat and race riding technique.

Upon completion of their 5 year Apprenticeship and having ridden their 60 winners, a 5th Year Apprentice has qualified for and is awarded a Professional Jockey License by the National Horse Racing Authority.

The South African Jockey Academy is situated at Shongweni, in KZN, next to the world-class Summerveld Training Centre. Their academic facilities include: Modern classrooms, a science laboratory, a library, a fully equipped computer room and audio-visual facilities. The riding facilities and stable yards include: tack and feed rooms, well-maintained paddocks, an indoor riding arena, a 400m riding track and various other riding arenas. The Academy also has modern training devices such as an Equicizer as well as other digital equipment e.g. a big screen television, digital cameras etc. for regular riding assessment and review.

The boarding facilities are split into boys and girls dormitories – the boys’ quarters are attached to the hostel master’s house and the girls’ quarters to the housemother’s house. The kitchen is supervised by suitably qualified kitchen staff who work in conjunction with a dietitian. Laundry facilities are maintained by a competent laundry team. The Academy also employs a full time qualified nursing sister, who lives on the property and is easily available to sick pupils during all hours of the day and night. There is also a well-equipped gymnasium, trampoline, swimming pool, squash court and a multi-purpose sports court for playing soccer, tennis, basketball and volleyball. View the full article with pics here

Should you wish to find out more about the Academy or the application process, please email: or call them on +27 31 769 1103

You can also visit their Facebook Page and Twitter account.