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S'manga Khumalo: From violent township to winner's enclosure

By Matthew Knight and Brooke Bowman, CNN
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 1436 GMT (2236 HKT)
S'manga Khumalo has already created history by becoming the first black jockey to win South Africa's most prestigious race, the Durban July. Now the 28-year-old has his sights firmly set on becoming the country's first black overall champion. S'manga Khumalo has already created history by becoming the first black jockey to win South Africa's most prestigious race, the Durban July. Now the 28-year-old has his sights firmly set on becoming the country's first black overall champion.
Black jockey defies odds to triumph
Black jockey defies odds to triumph
Black jockey defies odds to triumph
Black jockey defies odds to triumph
  • S'manga Khumalo aiming to become South Africa's first black champion jockey
  • The 28-year-old already made history by winning Durban July in 2013
  • Khumalo hails from violent township and hadn't seen a horse before he was 14

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(CNN) -- It's been a long time coming. A very long time. But S'manga Khumalo is proving that black jockeys can hold the whip hand in South Africa.

Whites may still dominate horse racing there, but it was the diminutive Khumalo who reigned supreme last year when he became the first black jockey to win the Durban July event in its 117-year history.

And now, having won South Africa's most prestigious race, the 28-year-old is setting his sights on smashing through another racial barrier by taking the champion jockey crown.

Not bad for someone who first laid eyes on a horse at the age of 14.

"I was a small boy from a township. I'd never seen a horse before, never ridden (one) ... I didn't know what horse racing was all about. But when I tried it I knew this was the only thing I could be good at," Khumalo told CNN's Winning Post.

Khumalo grew up in KwaMashu, a township 20 miles north of Durban that was dubbed South Africa's murder capital in 2009, and dreamed of becoming a doctor as a boy.

But his medical ambitions took a back seat when scouts from the South African Jockey Academy in Summerveld, west of Durban visited his school and invited him to an interview.

I was so small that I couldn't be a soccer player. I couldn't run because I had short legs
S'manga Khumalo

"I was so small that I couldn't be a soccer player," he recalls. "I couldn't run because I had short legs, so when I saw this sport I thought I might as well give it my best and see if I can achieve something."

What was initially a daunting prospect soon became a life-changing experience.

Khumalo says most of the horses were about five-foot tall -- as big as he is now.

"It was nerve-racking working around them at first, but once I got my confidence I got better with them -- they're such loving animals," he says.

"They might be big, but once you give them your heart they'll be very nice to you."

Read more: Forgotten godfathers of black American sport

After five years of training, Khumalo turned pro in 2006 and notched up two notable victories -- the Sansui Summer Cup in 2012 and the President's Champion Challenge last April -- before bagging the big one on Heavy Metal at Durban's Greyville Racecourse last July.

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"I wasn't expecting it but my horse and I, we had such a nice relationship. I knew, more or less, what I wanted to do with him and I did it exactly and he did his part," he says.

"It's every jockey's, owner's and trainer's dream to win the Durban July. I was so ecstatic. I felt like I could fly away. I will never change this feeling for anything else."

His win, which he dedicated to Nelson Mandela -- "were it not for him I would not have been in that race," he says -- is very much in the past now, as Khumalo hunts down more history this season.

Read more: 'History already written' for black jockey

With 102 wins and counting this season, Khumalo is on course to become South Africa's first black champion jockey -- his nearest rival Piere Strydom is currently on 78.

"Hopefully I can just try to get more winners, work hard and just keep the lead," Khumalo says.

But there are also other, more selfless reasons for achieving the feat.

"I'm pursuing my dream and hopefully helping others to pursue theirs," he adds.

"I want the up-and-coming black riders to have someone to look up to. If I can achieve that then there will be lots of doors open to them. I also want to be a mentor. (I want them) to say: 'Wow! I would like to ride like S'manga Khumalo.' "

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