Rachel Venniker shows the boys how it’s done

It took the influence of equestrian legend Michael “Muis” Roberts to finally get Rachel Venniker through the doors of the SA Jockey Academy in Summerveld. The young woman has since justified the faith – in spades.

This weekend, the 20-year-old became South Africa’s champion apprentice jockey, finishing the 2021/22 season with 70 winners from 570 races – 16 clear of nearest challenger Kaiden Brewer. Currently the only woman to drive in South African races, she was 14e on the general journal of jockeys.

Her performance over the past year has earned her the respect and applause of the most hardened racing fans, and many are already saying she is the best female jockey the country has produced.

The only disappointment of the term was to miss a chance to become the first woman to participate in Durban July in its 126 year history, when a fall and suspected concussion a week before the big race saw her lose her booking on underdog Red Saxon.

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Venniker might not have become a jockey if those responsible for the Summerveld Jockey Academy in KwaZulu-Natal had had a say.

She tried three times to gain admission to the academy’s apprenticeship scheme – but was refused as she was deemed too tall and it was feared she would soon be too heavy for racing.

Already registered, Rachel was in demand as a canter rider for the trainers at the Summerveld Training Center – and had won works rider races at full meetings at Greyville and Scottsville racecourses. She was also a backyard assistant to prominent trainer Wendy Whitehead, learning the ropes of a demanding trade.

From the age of four

In short, she was crazy about horses. His father Brett was a world class rider and his mother Marian also a renowned equestrian. The parents had baby Rachel on horseback from the age of four. She and her three older sisters grew up in the equestrian region of Hillcrest, their home a five-minute walk from Summerveld – so she didn’t have to go there to pursue her dream.

Rachel was, and still is, super fit, being a fanatic runner and working out in much of her free time. (The rest is spent on reading and art.)

But she was just too big for the racing dream.

Until Muis intervenes. Now a trainer with a 50 rope at Summerveld, Roberts noted on the gallops that the teenager had “nice footing, good hands and excellent balance”. He should know that, having been UK champion jockey and 11 times South African champion.

A fourth application for entry into the academy was submitted, and Roberts argued the case. For good measure, they brought in another former national champion and now coach, Garth Puller, and former Zimbabwean champion Kevin Wright.

“Special Learning”

Faced with the firepower of this lobby, the riding masters relented and granted Venniker a three-year “special apprenticeship”.

Most youngsters enter the academy around the age of 14 and must complete five years to qualify as full jockeys. But Rachel got the special offer because she was already registered and had a strong background with horses. (Two-time national champion Lyle Hewitson, who now rides very successfully in Hong Kong, had a similar apprenticeship.)

Within weeks Venniker was racing and soon had his first winner – in July 2021, on the filly Calulo for Roberts in Scottsville.

She finished that month and the 2020/2021 season with four wins from 36 races. The victory did not stop, even after quickly losing his authorized weight: 4 kg, 2.5 kg and then 1.5 kg.

Amazingly, a brand new rule for the 2022/23 season means she regains her 1.5kg allowance – in perpetuity. All female riders now receive this minimum allowance, as part of a campaign to get more young girls into the game.

Three weeks before July, Rachel happened to drop by Greyville to visit Highveld coach Joey Soma. The horse did not place, but Soma liked the way Venniker conducted his business. The next thing she knew was that she had been given the chance of a lifetime – only to have it snatched away when a wayward horse dumped her at the start of a race.

And the future? For now, home is where the heart is.

“I’m very happy where I am, in Summerveld. I love this place. But eventually, I would like to ride abroad, especially in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and Japan.