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Savanna Valjalo is two lengths clear at the finish on the Justin Snaith-trained 9/2 shot Gravity (Picture: Wayne Marks)

Savanna Valjalo is a new heroine of the racing public after bringing home the Tote favourite, the Justin Snaith-trained Querari gelding Gravity, in her first ever race ride in the Okapi Ladies International on L’Ormarins King’s Plate day.

On her Facebook page she described it as “the best day of my life” and dedicated the win to her beloved late show jumper “Shaggy.”

She said:

“L’Ormarins King’s Plate 2024: THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!! 🩵 Winning the Okapi Ladies International partnered with the special gelding, Gravity… it’s beyond a dream come true! Thank you Gravity, you absolute superstar!! 🩵 I went into the race dedicating it to Shaggy, and I have no doubt my guardian angel was with us.

Congratulations and thank you to owners Gina Goldsmith Greg Bortz and Leon Ellman as well as trainers Snaith Racing Justin Snaith Jonathan Snaith for the honour of riding for you, and the opportunity amongst a long list of other details I am endlessly grateful for!

My debut race, win, and the most magical day I will treasure for life.

A huge thank you to everyone who made the day possible and to Craig (Du Plooy) and Gina (Goldsmith) and Cape Racing for this incredible initiative!

To my family – having you all present at such a special occasion for me meant the world to me! Thank you for everything especially your ongoing encouragement, love, support, and excitement.

To Matchett Racing Sarah-Jane Clarke Paul Matchett for the instrumental role you’ve played in my journey from giving me my very first ride on a racehorse ever!

I’ve been left with a loss for words given the amount of kindness and support I have received, I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and has played a role in my journey for the past 4 months.

What a way to start the year ahead! It still feels so surreal.”

Gold Circle put together a summary of the race below and after that is an article written by Gary Lemke before the race, which gives a good perspective of Savanna Valjalo’s life with horses.

GRAVITY and Savanna defy the odds!

Race 1  OKAPI LADIES INTERNATIONAL MAIDEN PLATE 1200M
Hollywoodbets Kenilworth R200 000 06 January 2024
Comments:

JUSTIN SNAITH: “We’ve always been behind this event from the beginning. I think it is a big part of South African racing and Gina (Goldsmith) has done a fantastic job in ensuring the girls are looked after … they come from all over the country. This was a horse that I thought would take a lot of beating. We came across Savanna and she’s such a fantastic rider. She’s got a lot that my jockeys don’t have; work ethic, she’s a nice person … she’s everything I’ve looked for in a jockey! It’s been a pleasure to help her”.

SAVANNA VALJALO: “I know I went into starting stalls as the last horse loading and thought, okay, it’s time! We were galloping and galloping and then came 200 meters came and I thought now I ride for my life. I am lost for words. I felt like the race went really fast, but at the same time, it was all in slow motion. I felt the nerves before the pens, that’s for sure! There’s nothing more thrilling than this!”

GREG BORTZ: “Thrilled with this one! To see the growth in this race year after year is mind blowing. Amazing to win the race. Gina has worked exceptionally hard to put all this on. I am happy for Gina that after all this, we wind up winning the race. Kudos to Savanna, I think she’s been riding for 30 years. To think she only got onto a racehorse 4 months ago and was so balanced, is absolutely amazing and so poised”.

GINA GOLDSMITH: “I am just so happy all 12 ladies crossed the finish line and are safe. Obviously, it’s a bonus to win the race”.

Winner: 7. GRAVITY / Justin Snaith / S Valjalo
2nd : 4. Riverstone / Gareth van Zyl / K Meaker
3rd : 12. The US of A / Patrick Kruyer / V Lerena
4th : 10. Love Shack / Candice Bass-Robinson / C van Niekerk
Winning Owners: Messrs Greg Bortz, Leon Ellman and Ms Gina Goldsmith
Winning Breeders: Cheveley Stud
Breeding: Querari x Earth’s Orbit by Captain Al
Race Record: 7 Starts : 1 Win : 2 Places : Earnings R170 175
Credit: 4Racing #goldcircle #racingnews

Race-1 (Turf) R200 000 1200m 12:25 Ref-276
1st R118750, 2nd R38000, 3rd R19000, 4th R9500, 5th R4750, RCIS R10000
OKAPI LADIES INTERNATIONAL MAIDEN PLATE
For all Maidens
1     1     Roll Of The Dice        63    0     A     *Kayleigh Oakes   HWJ Crawford/M Rix
2     2     Noon Day Gun            63    82    A     *Luchelle Kruger  Justin Snaith
3     3     Rougarouin        63    73    A     *Milica Dusanovic Candice Bass-Robinson
4     4     Riverstone        63    0     A     *Kim Meaker Gareth van Zyl
5     5     Connery           63    79    A     *Wilmien Fourie   Glen Kotzen
6     6     See You In A Bit        61.5  79    BA    *Helen Richardson Glen Kotzen
7     7     Gravity           63    82    BA    *Savanna Valjalo  Justin Snaith
8     8     Gimmethelimelight       61.5  80    BA    *Kelsey Mayhew-Munger   Justin Snaith
9     9     Wissa’s On Fire         63    0     A     *Danielle Rivalland     Gareth van Zyl
10    10    Love Shack        61.5  78    A     *Chiné van Niekerk      Candice Bass-Robinson
11    11    Ischyro           63    0     A     *Lily-Rose Jamieson     Lucinda Woodruff
12    12    The Us Of A       63    0     A     *Vicky Lerena     Patrick Kruyer
Same Trainer
(2,7,8) (3,10) (4,9) (5,6)

Gary Lemke article about Savanna before the big race:

To suggest that Savanna Valjalo has a competitive streak would be putting it mildly. Then again, as she says, “both my parents are also very competitive”.

As is her brother. Savanna and Brandon are twins, born 20 seconds apart on 11 July 1998 in Sandton, Johannesburg.

Who arrived first? “I did,” says Brandon, who became the first skateboarder to represent South Africa at an Olympics when he competed at the Tokyo 2020 Games. “I should have had a riding whip in my hand, I would have beaten you,” jokes Savanna. “I would have just ramped over you to be first,” her brother laughs.

I first met Brandon while on Olympic duty with TeamSA in Tokyo. He had pitched for the interview looking battered, but upbeat.

Wearing a cast covering his right wrist and forearm, he had competed in the men’s street event the day before. “Injuries are part and parcel of what we do. Other people damage their eyes by looking at a screen too much. We damage our bodies. “I’ve broken this wrist twice.” He then turned around and lifted his shirt. “Roasties,” he said. “You get used to it. You climb back on and go again.”

That energy and never-say-die spirit extends to his twin sister who will ride the fancied Gravity in the R200 000 Okapi Ladies International, a race modelled on the Glorious Goodwood Magnolia Cup, and which will kick start the L’Ormarins King’s Plate meeting.

We are standing in the Hollywoodbets Kenilworth parade ring and looking for a bit of shade on a sweltering late December morning.

Savanna is one of seven riders in the field of 12 who weren’t in last year’s inaugural Ladies International and she had typically been hard at work making the adjustments.

An accomplished show jumper from a young age, she is getting ready for her first race. And the Querari gelding Gravity, running in the colours of Cape Racing chairman Greg Bortz, Gina Goldsmith, who is heavily instrumental in making the Okapi International happen, and Leon Ellman, will be Valjalo’s mount. No pressure then.

We were also talking the day before the final field and draws were announced for the 1200m sprint down the straight. “In an ideal world, where would you want to be drawn? Against the rail on the inside, in the middle, or on the outside?” I ask. “It doesn’t really matter. I think the horses will be spread across the track.” She has drawn in the middle, gate No7 to be exact and comes into the race on a horse in good form, having finished runner-up in his last two starts around the Durbanville turn.

So, what brings Valjalo to this Ladies race?

“I’ve been show jumping for as long as I can remember, probably around 22 years? I’ve had some experience in a racing environment though because my dad is an owner and has shares in a few horses including (four-time winning filly) Feather Boa. I also have my first horse as owner, Twenty Drachmas, who broke his maiden in December!

“Then I heard about the Okapi Ladies International from Jonathan Snaith and I leapt at the opportunity. Jonathan then put me in contact with riding master Craog du Plooy. So, the first time I rode a racehorse was only a couple of months ago, and it was something completely new to me. But I’ve watched a lot of racing from the sidelines and always wondered what it would feel like to actually ride a racehorse.”

The 25-year-old also has a daredevil streak to her, like her twin, who is wearing a Red Bull cap of his sponsors. “Do you know that Red Bull doesn’t sponsor horse racing, or swimming?” Brandon says, matter-of-factually. Actually, I didn’t know. Like his sister, he is confident, which is something needed to succeed at the highest levels.”

As for the race itself, Savannah admits that her main mission “is just to have fun. To make sure I have a smile on my face, ride the horse nicely and give him the best chance. Obviously, the goal is to win the race. You’ve got to set the standards high, but ultimately it’s about the occasion and having fun.”

Valjalo is one of several lady jockeys in the field who have not ridden in an official race. But, she feels that her bond with horses is another thing that will stand her in good stead come Saturday.

“I think I understand horses a lot better than I necessarily understand humans,” she admits. “I feel that’s something to my advantage.”

And, as she speaks, I sense there’s something she’s hiding behind that deep confidence and A-Lister smile.

For someone who has been with horses for over 20 years, surely there must have been loss over that period?

“Yes,” she says. And then that smile disappears. “I have lost two horses. My pony died of old age and then a show jumper very close to my heart died at the end of last year. He is what brought me into racing.”

Tell us more about him?

“I called him Shaggy. His actual name was High Street Kensington. I got him as a young colt and I took him home. I keep all my horses at home, and I have four. But when I took him to shows he would get really nervous and unused to the number of horses there. So, I thought that it would be unsafe to him and others in that kind of atmosphere. I managed to get him some experience at Randjesfontein so that he could get used to other horses and a lot of distractions and things happening. But … at the end of last year he got colic and three surgeries later we couldn’t save him.”

I had noticed that her last Facebook and Instagram posts had been in November 2022, which is a long absence for a 25-year-old on social media.

The posts show pictures of Valjaro patting the horse with the big white face after completing a show jumping round. Another is a reel of her kissing him.

On Facebook she wrote: “My Shaggy…  No words will ever do your loss justice. Nothing could ever fill the void you left that I now feel without you here. You were so brave and fought so unbelievably hard for the past 3 weeks which were undoubtedly the worst weeks of your life and mine. I’m so sorry for all your pain and suffering my boy. This really isn’t how things were meant to be. We were still supposed to celebrate your 5th birthday and catch up on all the treats you missed out on, but I pray you are in your happiest place now my baby. You SO deserve it.”

There’s a pause and even the first sounds of silence in the parade ring. “I stopped riding competitively. And then I got contacted about this Ladies race and I decided to get competitive again, both in show jumping and racing. Shaggy has helped me pick up the pieces, get back in the saddle as they say.”

Shaggy will be on Valjaro’s mind when she puts her game face on and saddles up for the opening race on the L’Ormarins King’s Plate programme.

“I’m dedicating this race to Shaggy,” she says. “It’s also my older brother’s 31st birthday today (5 January), so hopefully I’ll be able to give him a birthday gift.”

The photographer is waiting.

There are six ladies being lined up for the lens.

The photographer asks for one of them to be lifted and lie horizontally, trusting her colleagues to not drop her.

Guess who takes up the challenge?