Kenya’s champion jockey for the 2010/2011 season has 37 wins. That’s impressive anywhere in the world where they race horses. But what’s even more astounding is that Kenya’s top jockey is a woman. Lesley Sercombe has won nine championships in 20 years of competitive racing.
As with most sports, being a jockey is a male preserve, but Lesley takes the challenges this brings in her stride and as part of the territory. She continues to put up with derogative name calling from her male counterparts and chauvinistic comments intended to discourage her. She has learnt to ignore this like water running off a duck’s back.
When I asked her how long she had been riding and when she decided she wanted to be a jockey, she could not remember exactly. “I was basically born into a saddle,” she said, “I have been riding all my life.”
In fact, Lesley’s first formal competitive event was at the age of 13 in a pony race and she hasn’t looked back. She was told at an early age that she would probably be too tall to race but this did not deter her. It strengthened her resolve to succeed as a professional jockey. At 5 foot 9 inches, she is considerably taller than most jockeys who range from about 4 feet to 5 feet 5 inches.
Lesley’s dedication is evident in her daily regime of getting up before 5 am each day, stretching and meditating and then heading to the yard just before 6 am. She then rides between eight to ten horses for two hours, takes a 20 minute break and then rides four to five horses up until 9.30 am. She also oversees the feeding of the horses and ensures they are well kept and groomed. She works with her mother, Patsy Sercombe, who is also a trainer. “We make sure the horses have the most comfortable lives, just as sports people would require.”
Every afternoon Lesley is at the Impala club’s gym in Nairobi. She does an intensive three-hour session there, mostly cardio and weight training, for fat burning and building muscle strength, with particular emphasis on the muscles she needs for racing.
Lesley is not complacent about her position as number one Kenyan jockey. She continues to push herself, sharpening her skill by watching international races, as well as replaying and critiquing her own races. “I always watch my races after each race meeting” she said. “I’ve never once thought that I’ve completely succeeded, and continue to try to be the best I can be”.
Lesley’s inspiration comes from her trainer and mother, for her unfaltering
Dedication to the sport. Mrs Sercombe was also successful in amateur racing in her day. In fact, Lesley’s whole family is involved in racing in one way or another. Her twin sister, Linda Thorpe, does amateur racing, her older sister in Hong Kong does show racing and her nieces and nephews all ride. Her father, Dr John Sercombe is a veterinary doctor and one of the directors at the Jockey Club of Kenya.
Lesley’s humility is apparent in her gratitude to Steven Jejuna, a fellow jockey whom she calls her mentor and the person who taught her most of what she knows about riding. “I am so grateful to Lesukut, who sponsor me,” she said, “and to Mim Haynes (director at the Jockey club) and all the owners, without whom I actually wouldn’t be a champion.”
Apart from jockeying, Lesley has also been successful show jumping and in cross-country. She also tried her hand at polo but had to give this up after a shoulder injury.
Although she still finds racing thrilling, she is aware that she cannot do this for the rest of her life and is currently undertaking a sports training course to become an elite fitness instructor. She also hopes to continue training race horses, even if she no longer rides.
Lesley may have been “born in the saddle” and raised on horse feed and curry combs, but she is also a head-turning woman and recently modelled in a photo shoot, as the stunning images of the attached photo illustrate. “I was quite flattered to be asked to be a model considering what I do.”