Michael Roberts Profile
MICHAEL “Muis” Roberts, SA’s all-time greatest jockey, handed over the winning trophy of Sunday’s Michael Roberts Handicap at Scottsville to Muzi Yeni, who had won this year’s renewal on Adam Kethro’s Orbit War. Roberts has won the race himself as a jockey and trainer.
Here is the Michael Roberts Profile from Legends Of The Turf (Volume 1), by Charl Pretorius:
He has been called “South Africa’s best export since Gary Player” and while most South Africans are familiar with former champion jockey turned trainer Michael Roberts, his sensational international exploits escaped the public-at-large in his Motherland.
Michael’s Afrikaans nickname, “Muis” (mouse), perhaps more than his 11 National Jockey Championships, endeared him to a large section of the South African population in the 1970s and 1980s, especially to those who enjoyed only occasional flutters on the ponies and invariably had to rely on the best known jockey in hope of a lucky wager.
When he left South Africa in March 1978 for his first riding spell in the United Kingdom, Michael received coverage on prominent pages of local newspapers. But after several more visits to the UK and eventually settling down semi-permanently with his family in the racing village of Newmarket, he moved gradually out of the limelight at home.
There would be no dedicated horseracing channel in South Africa before the mid 1990s and preciously little media coverage was given to racing in Britain, Europe and other parts of the world, which goes to explain the unfortunate lack of support for Michael in his prime and riding successfully all over Europe, in Japan and in Dubai.
If he’d been born 10 years later, his name would have been on the lips of every South African with an ID document. He may well have achieved the same worldwide celebrity status that Frankie Dettori enjoys today.
In winning the coveted British Jockeys Championship in 1992, Michael Roberts added his name to those on the list of racing’s rare icons including Sir Gordon Richards, Lester Piggott and Pat Eddery.
It remains hugely disappointing that a low-key South African Sports Merit Award (1993) was the highest official honour bestowed in his Motherland on the man who won racing’s equivalent of a Grand Slam in Golf or an Olympic Gold Medal.
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Michael Roberts enjoys receiving praise and accolades like any other achieving sportsman, but medals and media hype have never been his motivating factors.
He appreciates the fact that seasoned racing scribes such as David Mollett have on occasion termed the relative lack of recognition for his riding feats to be something “shocking”.
He understands, too, that he just missed the advent of the vibrant electronic era in which information passes from one corner of the planet to another in split seconds. His riding “in between eras” – for want of a better expression – may have cost Michael a measure of fame, perhaps even considerable amounts of money in sponsorship packages, but he hasn’t lost any sleep over it.
To Michael, achieving top results in the highest ranks of racing is immensely rewarding on a personal level. He’s never needed headline exposure or celebrity glamour to motivate himself. He is grateful for his talents and the opportunities that came to him as a jockey. At this stage of his life his only ambition is to fulfill his potential as a trainer.
Michael Roberts, the trainer.
Michael hasn’t escaped the perils of his post-riding profession. He’s already been well exposed to its renowned learning curve and those often surprising twists and turns, but training thoroughbreds fills his heart with a joy unmatched.
He’s posted the kind of results that most ‘newbie’ trainers would be more than happy with. However, Michael’s 160 winners in six years as a trainer have only been mildly pleasing to the spirited 56-year-old. He strives towards nothing less than excellence and gets restless when he’s not at or near the top of his game.
Just 23 years ago Michael dreamed of riding classic winners in Europe. He pursued his goal with unwavering vigour until he broke into the big time, winning the 1987 Group 1 Eclipse Stakes on trainer Alec Stewart’s Mtoto at Sandown Racecourse in London.
Following a spate of Group winners around the world, Michael set his sights even higher and took aim at the British Jockeys Title.
Five years later he claimed the desired crown in stunning fashion (quoted at 100-1 when the season started) and became a champion in two hemispheres.
He clinched matters with an odds-defying 206 winners (28 more than second-placed Pat Eddery) in the 1992 UK Flat Racing term and joined a select band of jockeys to have ridden more than 200 winners in a single season.
Michael reflects: “One cannot compare the UK Jockeys Championship to the South African Trainers Title because they’re just worlds apart, two vastly different careers.
“England is the traditional home of racing. It’s the true pinnacle of the sport and the one place where the best horses and horsemen go to compete for the best prizes in the game. To give myself a fair chance of staying ahead in the title race I had to travel to racecourses in remote locations around the UK almost daily. I accepted a record 1 068 mounts during the course of that season.
“As a trainer I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum. I limit my string of horses to around 60 and I’m not interested in going after any titles. One needs big numbers to do that, 100 horses or more.
“When I left South Africa for the UK in 1978 all I wanted to do was ride classic winners. As it happened my career took off after a number of tough years competing with the top jockeys in Europe.
“I have a similar outlook now. Quality comes before quantity. I’d like to win races that matter. I am able to manage my horses without losing touch and I am enjoying every moment of it. I want to train Group winners and I’m hoping to acquire the kind of individuals that will put me in a position to do so. I’d love to have a horse good enough to race with overseas.”
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Michael is a private and level-headed person who looks at life realistically. His wonderful career in the saddle was marked by goal-oriented beliefs but there were a number of unexpected turning points. The right opportunities often arrived at the right time to nudge him in the right direction.
Michael Roberts on Gatecrasher (Ken Wilkens).
Michael’s not overly keen on the theories based upon destiny and fate, but he agrees with the popular notion among fellow-trainers that “the good horses will find you, when you’re ready!”
It would appear, too, that South Africa’s greatest ever jockey is about to embark on a journey that is likely to deliver the truly top-class thoroughbreds his many supporters firmly believe he is destined to train.
Michael reveals a recent development that would delight those very supporters and spiritually-motivated philosophers alike. He tells: “I’m about to move my horses from my farm in Karkloof, KwaZulu-Natal, to the Summerveld Training Centre in Shongweni. I’ve farmed cattle here for decades. I built 70 stables and laid four tracks on which I have trained my horses.
“The farm has been a beautiful home to me and my family, but just the other day someone arrived on our doorstep and made an offer to buy our property, lock stock and barrel. He came from nowhere, out of the blue and he was willing to pay the right price.
“Unlikely and surprising as it was, it got my wife Verna and I thinking about our future. In the end we made the very difficult decision to accept the offer. I believe it will turn out to be a change we won’t regret. In the last few years I have found it increasingly more difficult to manage my horses and my cattle. I’ve grown more attached to them and I’m burning to take a step up in my training career.
“We’ve reaped the benefits of cattle farming over and over, making money and winning many prizes on the Royal Show in Pietermaritzburg. But it’s time to move on. I’m approaching my last innings and I want to be as successful as I can be as a trainer. Gold Circle has generously approved 50 stables for me at Summerveld and we’ll be moving within the month of April.”
Michael’s belief in his capabilities and his potential as a trainer of classic winners has not replaced his humility.
He comments: “Trainers will tell you how they learn something new every day. These are the truest words ever spoken. Not a day goes by that I’m not humbled by the things I learn from horses, their individual habits and niggles and how to prepare them.
“I love them with a passion and soon they will have my full and undivided attention at one of the best training establishments in the world.”
In the spirit we’ve come to associate with the legend Michael Roberts, he adds: “I love a challenge. The tougher the challenge, the tougher I get!”
Michael Roberts on jockeys:
“To succeed at the highest level a jockey must have unwavering dedication and commitment to his career. That’s the only base to start from. Complete focus and hard work is essential. Among our jockeys in South Africa I’d say Anton Marcus is the closest we have to a thoroughly professional rider.”
On owners and trainers:
“I get on well with my colleagues, I rode winners for many of them in my time and I have learnt from them as trainers. I am amazed though at the amount of nonsense that flows from some mouths. I don’t make a point of criticizing other people, but at times I can’t help overhearing some the nonsense owners are being fed by trainers.
“Owners are gullible, sometimes narrow-minded. They believe anything they are told or they just ignore the truth! I prefer to be completely honest with my patrons. I run the risk of losing horses, but I won’t make up stories to gain new horses or to hang on to the ones in my care.
“When I was a young apprentice, trainer Herman Brown taught me to be diplomatic, not to make derogatory comments about horses because there are owners who are sensitive, they adore their runners whether they are good or bad. I understand that. I applied diplomacy as a jockey and as a trainer today I have sympathy and respect for my patrons.
“One has to draw a line, however when it comes to poor horses and those with serious injuries. Owners are largely uneducated. We as trainers should be helping to educate them instead of feeding them nonsense. We need more owners in racing and we must look after them.”
“Good communication is important. Owners invest their money and they are entitled to get feedback at all times. I’ve had my ups and downs with patrons, but over time I believe that a trainer attracts the type of owners that suit his personality, his stable management and his unique way of preparing his runners.
“Those are the owners that fit in easily and there is a mutual respect. I am privileged to have a group of good, understanding patrons supporting the stable at the moment.”
On training horses:
“I’ve adapted where I’ve needed to adapt, but generally I apply the training methods used by English trainers. I’ve worked closely with the best in the world, people like Sir Michael Stoute, Luca Cumani and Henry Cecil. I like to give my runners long, slow work for fitness and I sharpen them with shorter work when they approach their races.
“I’m not big on medication and I don’t race for the sake of racing. My horses train on. They have longer careers. I love looking after each one, getting to know them as well as I can. When they leave the yard and I walk past their empty stables, I get sad.”
On selecting yearlings:
“I try to secure just a few quality horses for my stable each season. I like to select them myself and I don’t mind paying for those that appeal to me. I won’t just fill up my barn with any young horses just for the sake of having more runners. I do my homework at the sales. The overall balance of a young horse is my most important consideration. I like balanced, well proportioned athletes.”
On the future of racing:
“We have a problem attracting crowds to the race tracks in South Africa, but racing will never die. Bernard Kantor invited me to the Investec Derby last year and it was a joyous and encouraging experience. There were thousands of colourful people of all ages, I had a good time just watching them. They loved the atmosphere at the track and looking at the horses. It was heartwarming to see. Racing has a good future.”
On the jockeys of yesteryear:
“Lester Piggott was a master of the game. He was a phenomenon in the irons, larger than life for all the right reasons. He was a fierce competitor who had every race meticulously figured out before he mounted up.
“I was privileged to ride in races against Lester in his prime and he was an astounding competitor. We went head-to-head in several finishes and I am proud to have beaten him a couple of times.
“Lester was one up on us, we never knew what he was up to. The worst thing was to have Lester posing on his ride somewhere behind you in a race. He kept everyone puzzled. We were never sure of what his next move would be.
“He was ice cool, always, and his tactics were calculated and unpredictable. You’d think you’d ridden the perfect race to win and it was all over bar the shouting, when Lester would suddenly loom up with a storming finish to pip your ride on the line.
“In South Africa the best jockey I rode against was Johnny McCreedy. He had the rare ability to extract the very best from each horse he swung a leg over. He was incredibly good.”
Quotes on Michael Roberts:
“Michael possessed a natural jockey’s make-up, very raw but very keen; and when he sat on a horse you could see he was a natural. He had a real riding brain. He’d be prepared to bounce out and then take a pull, having read the race within a hundred yards or so of the start and realising how the race was going to be run.” – Herman Brown (sr.)
Michael Roberts at 16. (Ken Wilkens).
“Michael had the classic jockey’s build, intelligence and was exceptionally sharp. His principal asset, though, was balance; when Michael starts pushing a horse he’s in balance and never stops.” – Fred Rickaby.
“Michael had any amount of self-confidence and really believed in himself. The game was made for him and right from the outset his mind worked like that of a top jockey. His brain was just going all the time.” – Cyril Buckham.
“I formed an immensely favourable impression of Michael. Firstly, there was his obvious skill in the saddle; second, there was the engaging, quiet and self-deprecating manner and total dedication.” – Peter O’Sullevan.
“‘Tiger’ Wright rode for me and so did Johnny McCreedy – and even ‘Cocky’ Feldman rode for me a little – but this little Dutch boy came along and he was special. It was his brain that made all the difference. He was highly intelligent.” – Brian Cherry.
“Michael Roberts is a great rider and a great tactician; he was always using his brain in a race. His determination to become champion jockey was unswerving. He worked night and day, day and night to do it. You must have tunnel vision to become champion jockey: you must almost block everything else out, and he did that perfectly.” – Steve Cauthen.
“Michael’s great strength as a jockey is his desire to win, which is reflected in the fact that horses do run for him. I only put him on the best horses, the rest didn’t matter.” – Luca Cumani.
“I have nothing but the highest respect for Michael.” – Sir Michael Stoute.
“Michael does not possess a mean bone in his body – though he detests hypocrisy in any shape or form – yet anyone who underestimates Michael Roberts is in for a real shock. Like every champion he has the killer instinct.” – Catherine Jenkinson.
“Michael has a good sense of humour and is a subtle fun-poker himself. He always sees the funny side of everything and takes no interest in a sour face.” – Trevor Denman.
“When I joined the South African Jockeys Academy in 1978, Muis was the leading jockey in SA and he had many jocks looking to knock him off the top but from what I saw it was going to take a good one to do that, so all I did was to watch and listen to all he had to say and try and do the same. I was never as good as him but he was the perfect role model and there is no doubt that he was the greatest jockey that ever came out of SA. On top of it all he is a great friend and always will be. Long live the Champ Muis Roberts, loved all over the world in racing circles.” – Kevin Shea.
Achievements as a jockey
Career winners: 3964 (1969 – 2002)
South African Championships:
11 (1972-76; 1978-84)
SA Group 1 winners:
Top SA winners include:
Bodrum (1984); Bold Tropic (1979); Gatecrasher (1975); Majestic Crown (1974); Michaelmas (1976); Northern Princess (1989); Rotterdam (1981); Row To Rio (1977); Scarlet Lady (1981); Sentinel (1972); Sledgehammer (1974-76); Spanish Pool (1984); Sun Monarch (1973); Super Quality (1994), Swan Prince (1980); Ted’s Ambition (1983), The Maltster (1978); Topa Inca (1990).
Principal victories SA:
-Gr 1 Durban July: 1997 (Super Quality)
-Gr 1 J&B Met: 1975 (Sledgehammer)
-Gr 1 Cape Guineas: 1972 (Sentinel); 1975 (Gatecrasher); 1979 (Bold Tropic); 1984 (Turncoat); 1986 (Sea Warrior); 1991 (Star Effort)
-Gr 1 Queen’s Plate: 1975 (Sledgehammer); 1983 (Wolf Power); 1984 (Spanish Pool).
-Gr 1 Gold Cup: 1971 (Rainstorm); 1977 (Don The Stripe)
-Gr 1 Holiday Inns (Summer Cup): 1975 (Majestic Crown); 1984 (Spanish Pool).
-Gr 1 Cape Computaform Sprint: 1973 (Justine); 1977 (Row To Rio); 1986 (Honey Bear).
-Gr 1 Allan Robertson Championship: 1975 (Rebellious); 1976 (Shelter); 1981 (Breyani).
-Gr 1 SA Invitation Stakes: 1979 (L’Attaque); 1987 (Priceless Asset).
UK/International Group 1 winners:
Top UK/International winners include:
Barathea (1993); Braashee (1990); Indian Skimmer (1988); Lyric Fantasy (1992); Mtoto (1988-1993); Mystiko (1991); Opera House (1993); Sikeston (1990); Terimon (1991); Waajib (1987), Wolfhound (1993).
Principal victories UK/International:
-Gr 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes: 1988 (Mtoto); 1993 (Opera House)
-Gr 1 Eclipse Stakes: 1987 and 1988 (Mtoto)
-Gr 1 English 2000 Guineas: 1991 (Mystiko)
-Gr 1 Irish 2000 Guineas: 1993 (Barathea)
-Gr 1 Coronation Cup: 1993 (Opera House)
-Gr 1 Nunthorpe Stakes: 1992 (Lyric Fantasy)
-Gr 1 Prix Royal Oak (France): Braashee
-Gr 1 Primio Roma (Italy): 1991 Sikeston
-Gr 1 Japan Cup: 1995 (Lando)
Best horses ridden:
Mtoto, Sledgehammer, Bold Tropic
Training record (June 2005 – March 2011)
app ZAR 9,8 million
Best horses trained:
Listed winners West Coast Gold and Tropical Empire (moved to Duncan Howells in 2009).
Quotes extracted from Michael Tanner’s excellent biography, Michael Roberts: A Champion’s Story (Headline, 1994). Thanks to David Safi of formgrids.co.za for providing his copy of the book for research.