Jack Milner: As Anthony Delpech wrapped up his third South African Jockeys’ Championship perhaps the person most surprised by the feat was Delpech himself.
“I had no intention of going for the championship this season,” says the 48-year-old jockey. “It has been a sort of fresh start for me because it’s the first season I have been sponsored by Mary and Jessica Slack’s Wilgerbosdrift and Mauritzfontein. I also split with Mike de Kock but there is obviously been an overlap as Mary has runners with Mike.
“The split also opened doors everywhere else although I still rode a lot of winners for Mike. When Callan Murray went to Hong Kong he still gave me lots of rides from the Sheikh and other owners.
“I also broke my collarbone and was out for two months so I thought that blew my chances. But then everything just fell into place for me. Gavin Lerena was leading the jockeys’ log but then decided to ride in the UK for the balance of the season. That also opened the door for me.”
Delpech was born on 10 February 1969 in the Seychelles but his family moved to Durban when he was 13-years-old. He could only really speak French and that his how he ended up with the nickname “Bonji”. It was taken from the French term “bonjour”, meaning “good day”.
He struggled at school because his English was very bad. “I was looking for any sport to get out of normal school. I was tiny at that age and my teachers always said I could become jockey. I went home and told my dad, who was always watching racing on TV. It went on from there.
“I didn’t know too much about racing at that age. I thought of it as a sport, rather than a career. But once I started learning more about racing, started riding races and winners, having to keep my weight down and become dedicated to racing, I knew this was for life.”
Delpech won his first South African Champion Jockey title in the 1998-99 season and followed up in 2002-3. He was runner-up behind Anton Marcus in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and last season finished second to S’manga Khumalo.
When he won the championship in 2003 he rode 334 winners, breaking Piere Strydom’s record.
“When I won the championship that season I was so exhausted I almost couldn’t ride for two months. Your body gets so tired. Amazingly this year I feel really fresh.”
He has ridden all over the world but really made a name for himself in Hong Kong, where he teamed up with former South African trainer David Ferraris.
It was there that Delpech got partnered with the horse he rates the greatest he had ever ridden – Vengeance Of Rain.
He was foaled in New Zealand, trained by Ferraris and ridden mostly by Delpech. Vengeance Of Rain went on to win six Grade 1 races in a variety of countries, including the Sheema Classic in Dubai on World Cup Night in 2007. Vengeance Of Rain broke the all-time Hong Kong prize money record set by Silent Witness but sadly died in 2011 at the Cambridge Stud in New Zealand, where he had been foaled.
Delpech has won the Vodacom Durban July four times, the same total as Anton Marcus, Piere Strydom and Tiger Wright. His first win was aboard Classic Flag in 1998 and the other three, Greys Inn (2004), Bold Silvano (2010) and Igugu (2011), were all trained by Mike de Kock.
The best South African horse he has ridden and one that holds a very special place in his heart, is Igugu.
“She won the Tripe Tiara at Turffontein, the Grade 1 Woolavington 2000, the Vodacom Durban July and the Met within less than a year.
“In the Met she was not at her best and Mike was even thinking about scratching her. But her heart saw her through. She was very courageous.”
Igugu went to stud in Australia and it was only on Friday, by pure chance, that news came through that she had died in October last year.
“That was very disappointing to hear,” said Delpech this week. “It was a great loss. She did so well for me so it’s very, very sad.”
At the age of 48, how many years does Delpech think he still has in the irons?
“At one stage I thought I would retire when I was 50. But I’m feeling good and I’m riding better now than when I was younger.
“I wish I was riding in Hong Kong now. I think I’m smarter than I was eight years ago and I’m enjoying myself right now. Many of us are close together when it comes to riding skills so at the end of the day it’s the jockey who makes the smarter decision who comes out on top.
“I feel as long as I am competitive and I’m enjoying myself I will continue to ride but I think my overseas trips will be limited to rides for Mary. Smart Call could run in Hong Kong and I could go there to ride her.”
Candice, Delpech’s wife, is undoubtedly one of his biggest supporters, along with their three children – Damon, Chelsea and Brooklyn.