While some 50 000 plus spectators will pack into Greyville for this year’s running of the Vodacom Durban July only a select group of 18 will have a unique view of the race.
For the 18 jockeys tasked with guiding the eventual winner home this is the Holy Grail. The R3.5-million spectacle is arguably the biggest in South Africa and the roll of honour includes a list of distinguished equine performers.
“It’s hard to explain really,” former top jockey Brett Smith told The Citizen yesterday when asked what it was like to line up for the Grade One contest run on the first Saturday in July every year.
“You dream about it from when you are an apprentice. You’ve to the atmosphere on course, the people. The whole week is a vibe. It gathers momentum and it’s exciting,” Smith, affectionately known as ‘Barney’ by his colleagues in the jockey’s room, said.
Injury curtailed an accomplished riding career that included successes in the Summer Cup, two legs of the South African Triple Crown and multiple Grade One and stakes victories when associated with horses like National Colour and Mythical Flight among others.
“The course buzzes on the day. Even in the jockey’s room there’s a bit of a vibe. Guys are pacing up and down and constantly checking their equipment. There’s definitely pressure.”
Smith is part of an unfortunate group of highly talented riders unable to clinch a victory in this famous event. The likes of Jeff Lloyd, Weichong Marwing and Mark Khan, all talented riders in their own right, are some of the other names who spring to mind.
“It’s cutthroat and it’s hard. Nobody gives an inch. You hesitate for one second and the gap closes. It’s the one everyone wants to win,” Smith, whose best finish was a short head third when riding Tytola in 2002.
In a closely fought finish, Ipi Tombe got up under Kevin Shea on the outside while Smith and his mount were involved in a duel with Piere Strydom on Angus on the inside of the track.
“I thought I got up. At the line I looked over to Piere and asked who’d got it. He told me we’d both been beat,” Smith, who enjoyed riding stints in Singapore and Mauritius during his career, said.
Jockeys don’t just arrive and ride on the day, identifying their Durban July mount is a process of elimination over the course of a few months particularly after the three-year-old crop take part in the Classic races.
“There’s always the thought that ‘maybe this year is my year’. You’ve more or less got an idea and might have three or four horses in mind and then obviously you see how their prep plans out.”
It’s all part of an exciting journey that culminates in the 2 200m distance as thoroughbred talent combines with the skill of the men tasked with piloting them home, tomorrow the class of 2015 will experience that.