Last week in the ambiant background of grey area internet streams, the corner of my eye was constricted by a black man riding a bike in France. I recalled a rider from Guadaloupe competing in Le Tour a year or two ago, but here was an altogether more agressive gearmasher. Kévin Reza had broken away from the Peloton with 5 others. Marseille or bust. With 20K to go, Reza and one other held a four minute lead over the Peloton. I pondered the particulars. This could be the first black man to win a stage in the Tour de France. This is significant. This is share worthy. But as I suggested folks take note — and just before Reza was swallowed up by the Peloton in sight of Marseille — I also felt unease about the space between novelty and history.
An electronic acquaintance chimed in and summed up what I had been thinking, but had not been ready to concede, “these ‘First Black’ celebrations need to end at some point.” So here I am again, a little conflicted, but crowing at the achievement of S’manga Khumalo becoming the first black jockey to win the Durban July, South Africa’s richest horse race.
The perfunctory “first black jockey to win…” dominated the opening lines of every dispatch from the Greyville track, yet the story has received scant attention outside South Africa. There were a couple of bigger purses on offer that day in Britain and the United States, yet the story of Khumalo’s remarkable achievement has not been the global racing or sports news it should have been. The racing press in the United States and Europe regularly debate the respective inertias of their jurisdictions. Racing needs to do more to reach out and promote itself, they say. Yet here was a story it seemed they have spectacularly failed to tell.
An above the fold or prominent front page celebratory photograph of Khamulo and his mount Heavy Metal on the subsequent day’s major global racing publications should have been a given. In other publications and mediums where competition for sports column inches and broadcast seconds is fierce, an after race quote from Khumalo (“I dedicated the race to Mandela because were it not for him I would not have been in that race”) should have sealed a relatively prominent position for the story alongside the strawberries and cream, crackerjack and egg chasers. It was not to be. Two days after the race, less than a paltry 1,000 viewers have watched Khumalo deliver a silky and stunning piece of horsemanship on YouTube.
Those who have seen the 1 Mile 3 Furlong (2,200 Meters) race will have been stuck by the ice cold confidence of Khumalo. Drawn 11 of 20, Khumalo nonchalantly glided Heavy Metal toward the rail and settled the 4 year old gelding at the rear of the pack. In the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ conditions of such a competitive handicap, Heavy Metal could have easily become collateral damage. But Khumalo (born in Kwamashu township 20 miles north of Durban) was wise to the undulations and curves of his pear shaped hometown track. With less than two furlongs remaining, Khumalo promised his mount extra carrots. Heavy Metal responded and quickly took Khumalo to a line of leading contenders. With less than half a furlong to go, it’s was time for Khumalo to show his stuff. He crouched lower, shortened the reins and powered Heavy Metal to the winning post.
Khumalo raised his whip in front of 50,000 spectators as he crossed the line. “Bling” as he is also known because of his diamond stud earring and occasional platinum blond rinse celebrated in a unabashed fashion. It was not his first Group 1 victory in South Africa and should not be his last there or elsewhere. Here is the star performer global horse racing desperately needs to complement the likes of the great Frankie Dettori and the upstart French kid, Mikael Barzalona. If given his chance, Khumalo can contribute to transforming the rather la de da image of the sport worldwide, remind the sport of the illustrious history of black jockeys and make racing more accessible and exciting for millions more.
In the meantime, those reporters who filed the “the first black jockey to win…” story need to start asking questions such as how was it that this was the 28 year old Khumalo’s first ride in South Africa’s richest race? And how could it be possible that he was the only black jockey in the race? Those in the United States, who earlier this year also reported on Kevin Krigger in the Kentucky Derby having the opportunity to be “the first black jockey since…” also need to be asking some similarly tough questions of their racing industry.