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– Written by Mark van Deventer

The L’Ormarins King’s Plate card gets underway at 12h25 on 6 January with the Okapi Ladies International Maiden Race down the straight 1200m course at Hollywoodbets Kenilworth.

All 12 thoroughbreds will be ridden by women, who bring a wide range of equestrian experience to bear.

Take Chiné van Niekerk, who has a background in dressage with 29 years of riding – she will partner the Candice Bass Robinson trained, LOVE SHACK. “In dressage, soft hands are important, as are use of the legs. Race riding is an adjustment, and we must use different muscles – it’s more about core strength and the top half of the body.”

The assured Van Niekerk, who said she is not in any way nervous ahead of her Okapi debut, knows what she is talking about: She started out with veteran conditioner, Corrie Lensley, then moved on to ride work for trainer JJ van Vuuren, and along the way also found time to train under James Maree for her Work Riders License.

Van Niekerk confirms that the consistent LOVE SHACK is “feeling good.” The CAPTAIN OF ALL filly has placed at each of her last five starts, so should again be in the fray.

The petite Savanna Valjalo comes at this special event from a different perspective, after showjumping for 22 years. Yet, she is similarly assured, remarking with conviction that, “I understand horses better than people.”

Valjalo, who will ride Snaith Racing’s, GRAVITY may disarmingly say, “I want to have fun and will ride the race with a smile on my face…”, but underneath that bubbly nature is a determined, competitive streak. If Gravity can build on a recent near miss behind PLAZA ACCORD, then Valjalo could be sitting on a prime contender.

Vikki Lerena, who is married to ace jock, Gavin, will ride THE US OF A for Paddy Kruyer, a potential wake-up horse after a midfield debut behind THE REAL PRINCE. Lerena has more experience at this race-riding gig than most, and has won races on smart horses like Sean Tarry’s WENDYWOOD, and Mike Bass’s ENCHANTRESS at Hollywoodbets Greyville.

She does a great deal of work-riding at Randjiesfontein and Turffontein on the Highveld, and refines her technique on the Equisizer specially designed and built by her husband. The supportive couple also share tactical insights after races – though Vikki good-naturedly quipped, “a half an hour debrief with Gavin is long enough…” – but prefer to leave race-day dramas behind and instead relax with their kids.

ROLL OF THE DICE (trained by Michelle Rix) will be piloted by Kayleigh Oakes. She was encouraged by Vikki Lerena to get involved and has a jockey connection as well: her boyfriend is Highveld-based hoop, Wes Marwing.

Oakes is an accomplished show jumper. She has developed even speedier reflexes in grass gallops overseen by stalwart conditioner, Paul Matchett, and teaches racehorses how to start properly by putting them through the pens.

ROLL OF THE DICE was understandably green on debut in September; this will be his first run back after gelding.

Hard-core form analysts will, as usual, pour through the intricacies of the past performances looking for that elusive secret code to try exploit an edge at the odds.

NOON DAY GUN, GRAVITY, WISSA’S ON FIRE (Danielle Rivalland), GIMMETHELIMELIGHT (Kelsey Mayhew-Munger) SEE YOU IN A BIT (Helen Richardson) & RIVERSTONE (Kim Meaker) all have alluring credentials and could crack their Maiden tags come Saturday, but there is more to this special race than just smoking out the winner.

The Okapi Ladies International is a worthy initiative that promotes broader participation in horse racing and celebrates diversity. What an innovative way to kick start the prestigious, LÓrmarins King’s Plate Day of ‘24!


Images by Chase Liebenberg