- Andrew Atkinson talks to former South African apprentice jockey, Orihuela based Derek Ray, about trainer and ex-jockey, Cape Town born Michael ‘Muis’ Roberts, 66, recently honoured following an illustrious career.
JOCKEY turned trainer Michael Roberts lives in Soulives with his wife Verna and two daughters, Melanie and Carolyn.
Roberts had a successful career, winning a plethora of English and South African races – being British Flat racing Champion Jockey in 1992. His most famous wins were on board double Eclipse Stakes winner, Mtoto.
Deemed ‘A Son Of Africa’ Michael was honoured in 2021 by Kwazulu-Natal horseracing as one of their greatest ever sons.
He trains a string of 50 horses out of his Summerveld stables, following success in the saddle winning 11 South African jockey titles and the UK title.
“I was based at Summerveld training jockey Academy, aged 11 in the early seventies,” reflected Derek Ray. “I recall I just fell into looking at becoming a jockey, due to my size – I was so small and light,” said Derek. “I met Muis Roberts, he was so well talked about during my time as a trainee,” he said.
On his book Michael Roberts A Champions Story, Muis said: “Apprentices at the SA Jockey Academy and many colleagues have borrowed the book over time.
“I still have the original leather-bound version thankfully which I will hand on to my daughters. A lot of water has flown under the bridge in the ensuing years. Maybe in a few years, I will sit down and catch up on life in the last three decades.”
On training he said: “It’s a strange variation that I have long pondered over.
“When I rode champion Group 1 horses for some of the world’s biggest owners in front of massive crowds, I was strangely calm and confident. “Today I saddle a Maiden prospect at Hollywoodbets Greyville, and I am a bundle of nerves, and hyped up stress! “The thing is that each and every one of our horses are our children. You know what it’s like when your son or daughter runs in the athletics at school, it’s an emotional event.
“They are on their own and we are helpless when they come out of the blocks. That’s how it is for me as a trainer. “It takes months to prep them and I still take enormous pride in saddling a routine midweek Maiden winner. Just think again what goes into preparing a horse to win a race!”
On coronavirus he said: “It’s very different to the great days.
I suppose that’s what they call the ‘new normal’ for now. We adjust. We accept. We make the most of it. That’s the spirit and we will get through this.
“With Covid and lockdown, many of us have gone back to the old fashioned pursuit of reading a good book, which is good.”
Muis sustained a neck injury resulting from a fall in the UK in 2001 that lead to him retiring from riding, aged 48, just 32 winners short of 4,000.
A tribute raceday was hosted at Hollywoodbets Scottsville, where he rode the first of 3,968 career winners in 1968 on Smyrna, age 14. He rode Lando, winning the Japan Cup in 1995; Mtoto winning the 1987 and 1988 Coral Eclipse stakes; and The King George and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
Other notable wins were riding Fred Rickaby-trained Sledgehammer, in the Breeders Cup and Mystiko in the 2000 Guineas.
“The sight of 200,000 people cheering when I turned to canter back after winning the Japan Cup on Lando in 1995 – what a memory,” said Muis.
On Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, he said: “Meeting the Queen after winning the King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes was the greatest honour in my career.
“Mtoto was was a great horse.
Winning Form Challenge, it was the last match race in South Africa on December 30, 1989. It was a mile race between a son and daughter of Northern Guest, Senor Santa and Northern Princess.
“There was a capacity crowd, even with a cricket test and a major surfing competition underway. Everyone said Senor Santa would win it, but I just kept a little bit in reserve.
“The Hollywoodbets Greyville crowd went bananas,” he said.
Derek Ray added: “As an apprentice jockey regular measurements were taken of knee and thigh bone structure, from which they’d look to predict growth potential and your ultimate size/vs weight, etc.
“As it turned out I was only at Summerveld a short while – then simply returned to schooling – as if nothing had happened.
“Michael was phenomenal. After he left the Academy he’d notched up more winners than any other jockey and left with the largest purse ever – that’s winnings accumulated whilst an apprentice, as most was set aside and only paid over upon leaving.”