On a horse in full flight, James Muhindi, becomes his horse; their hearts seem to beat as one, the lungs almost synchronised, their language, an abstract one, a secret language between man and his horse. James is most comfortable on a moving horse. That’s his comfort zone.
At 33, his name is a common one in all the important horse races in Kenya, especially at Ngong Racecourse. He has won most of the classic races and is currently widely lauded as one of the best jockeys. “My only rival is Patrick Mungai,” he told JACKSON BIKO recently at the stables at The Jockey Club. This weekend the Jockey Club stakes are on and he’s the jockey to watch.
To be a good jockey, do you have to think like a horse?
(Laughs) You have to love horses, take care of them and understand them. I started loving horses a long time ago. My father was a jockey, but he retired early. When I was young, I saw some photos of him riding a horse and I thought he was having so much fun so I told him that I wanted to ride. He wasn’t too keen, but he offered to teach me how to ride because he still had contacts at the Jockey Club. But he also enrolled me into a carpentry school. Over time, I realised I loved horses more than I loved making beds and tables.
What about horses appealed to you over beds and tables?
Horses have a personality of their own but you have to be around them to understand those personalities. There are brave horses and horses that you have to encourage. There are horses that like being led until the final 200 meters in a race when they take off. You can’t ride all horses the same way, so you have to understand the personality of a horse before you can ride them.
Have you ever met a horse that just didn’t like you? You tried everything but it was just not having none of you?
(Laughs) No, not personally. But of course there are some crazy horses, not crazy in terms of mad but just stubborn. Horses that want to do what they like. There are horses that completely refuse to race, no matter how many trainers you put on them. Whenever that happens we normally give that horse a different task like show jumping or even polo.
Not every horse is crazy about racing, you mean. Some have different ambitions.
Exactly. Just like human beings. You see how my father wanted me to do carpentry but I ended up being a jockey? Yes. Horses have personalities like us.
Is a win for the horse or the jockey? Who needs to get that trophy?
It’s for both the horse and jockey. The horse, of course. It is the one that runs the race, but the horse can’t run without a jockey’s encouragement. What people don’t hear during the race are the things the jockey tells the horse. We have a conversation. To be a jockey, you also have to constantly watch your weight. I’m 53 kilogrammes now but when I started racing horses, I was 48 kgs. Keeping this weight is not an easy thing because once you go over 54 kgs you can’t be a jockey.
So there are no fat, chubby jockeys?
(Laughs) No. You can’t ride a horse if you weigh too much. The more you weigh as a jockey the less rides you get and so if it’s your profession, then you have to watch your weight all the time.
So as a jockey you have to have a weighing scale at home?
We have one here and we weigh ourselves every week. If you have added weight, you just have to lose it and you do it by eating small portions of food. You don’t eat until your stomach is stretching. You eat only enough to keep you alive. But even when we are on a break, which is usually two months in a year, we have to watch what we eat.
Is it a good idea to invest in a horse, can I make some money off it?
Well, horse racing in Kenya is not as lucrative as it is in say South Africa. A good horse will cost you something like Sh600,000. Then there are the monthly maintenance costs of Sh40,000 for training and feeding. Then you hope that it wins the Classics which fetch Sh400,000 per race. But the other smaller races fetch a prize of Sh40,000 or thereabouts. So you see it’s tricky. Most people just keep them as a hobby. They like to come and watch their horses race, it’s not to make money.
If your horse wins the Sh600,000, how much of that money is yours?
Oh! 10 percent is for the jockey. There are also some small training fees that we get daily. So you can stay afloat with what you earn. But mostly you have to be passionate about it, otherwise if you want to do it for the money, you will be discouraged when you don’t win.
Then you will be stressed, add weight and get fat and nobody will want you to get on their horse?
(Laughs) Exactly. But I have a family. I’m married with two children and what I do here supports them. My son likes horses, so maybe one day he will be a great jockey.
Why do you think you are good at being a jockey? Why do you keep winning these races? Is there a secret.?
Because I’m very passionate. I’m happy with my job. When I'm here, I’m not thinking about other ways I can make money. When I’m here, I’m completely here with my horses, body and mind.