Champion jockey Lesley Sercombe is a living legend -- but a debilitating disease nearly took away her career and life. She shares her story of what it took for her to recover and why, well into her 40s, she has enrolled at the University of Nairobi to study veterinary medicine
“Anything is possible; failure is when you stop trying, nothing is over until you give up, as life has to be lived by the minute. Round that corner does not exist,” Lesley Sercombe says as she ushers me into the Winning Post Restaurant, at the Ngong Racecourse, Nairobi.
At 46, she stands at 5’9” with a lean body, high cheekbones, clear complexion, and admirable flexibility. In response to my compliment, she shyly returns a thank you, and say, “This body has been through so much.”
Just before this interview, we watched her take four races, dashing each, with her horse galloping under her spectacular guide to a win in the male-dominated races.
Horse riding, Lesley says, is her passion and way of life. “Riding, gives me a myriad ways to keep my body fit – it has taught me responsibility, patience, kindness, humility, good manners, self-discipline, coordination, concentration, fitness, achievement, sportsmanship, balance, industriousness, and lifelong skills,” says the jockey.
Lesley’s family is involved in racing in one way or another. Her twin sister, Linda Thorpe, does amateur racing, her older sister in Hong Kong show jumping, 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. Her mother, Patsy Sercombe is a horse trainer.
Lesley’s dedication is evident in her daily regime of getting up before 5am each day, stretching and meditating and then heading to the yard just before 6am. 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 9:30am.
Working with her mother, she also oversees the feeding of the horses and ensures they are well kept and groomed. “We make sure the horses have the most comfortable lives, just as sportspeople would require,” Lesley says.
She spends afternoons 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. She has to do this, in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
As a jockey, we learn, you have to maintain a less-than-55kg weight. The heaviest Lesley has weighed in her life is 58kgs. At 5 foot 9 inches, she is considerably taller than most jockeys who range from about 4 feet to 5 feet 5 inches.
Though she cannot remember the exact year she started riding horses, Lesley says she was “basically born into a saddle and has been riding all my life”. At ten years old, Lesley knew that becoming a jockey was an absolute priority and her first formal competitive event happened at the age of 13 years in a pony race. Since then, she has never looked back, despite early discouragement that she probably would be too tall to race. That did not deter her but instead strengthened her resolve.
She says that horse riding, both as a betting sport and leisure, has taught her quite a lot. For starters, she discovered emotions she could not have experienced in any other way, some of which affected her life negatively – like fear, anger, and frustration.
As she kept pushing her passion for riding, Lesley says she experienced a deep and enduring satisfaction and sense of fulfillment from being able to communicate with another species.
“Horses tend to respond graciously to my wishes without necessity for harshness, and the thrill in winning races are pure, constant tonics, each strike as if it were the first,” she explains.
Lesley’s other love are her dogs, her pet companions. She lives at the racecourse with six of the friendly dogs, who she wittingly says “need their constitutional walk at sunset after an intellectual absorption”. Her love for animals is part of the reason she is studying to become a qualified veterinarian.
“I realise that I cannot horse-race forever. In fact, the curtain is falling on me faster than I thought and I would want to be a vet as my fall-back plan when I retire so that I can take care of the animals (horses and dogs),” says Lesley who hopes to continue training racehorses, even if she is not riding them.
Lesley studied at Banda and Hillcrest schools in Kenya and St John’s Marlborough in the UK. Currently, she is a veterinary medicine student at the University of Nairobi, Kabete campus, an outstanding institution, she notes.
“Kabete campus is unique and the community exceptional, with the administration, lecturers doing their best to make it a good learning institution, keeping clear of politics and other divisionary elements,” she says. The campus, she adds, has become her second home. When she finally graduates, she will be joining the realm of her family – her father, mother and two siblings are all veterinarians.
Besides her passion for horseback riding and animals, the jockey champion loves to unwind by watching criminal drama on TV, going to the gym (she is an elite fitness instructor who holds an International Sports Science Association certification) and taking part in CSR activities. She tried polo but gave up after a shoulder injury.
Lesley says horseback riding has great health benefits, though tricky for women because of stereotypical and chauvinistic intonations. “Horseback riding therapy brings a great number of muscles into action, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively, and by so doing can improve balance, posture, and coordination, circulation, metabolism, and respiration,” she says.
She adds that regular saddling (putting a saddle on a horse) improves reflexes, physical fitness, and stamina. Jockeys, she says, are considered the second fittest athletes, right behind marathon runners, swimmers, cyclists and tennis players.
Horseback riding, Lesley explains, requires concentration, comprehension, and the development of skills to master the technique of riding. This is why many women have tried and given up. She is mentoring three women who are apprentices and horse handlers.
“Horse riding, though is an exhilarating sport, never drudgery”, she notes. Despite being in the number one slot as a jockey woman, Lesley continues to sharpen her skills by watching international races, as well as replaying and reviewing her races. “I have never been complacent with my position and I continue to try and be the best that I can,” she says.
Ride of courage
Lesley says that getting to know horses changed her perspective of the world forever. Her greatest high, she says, is when she and her horse win, and her lowest moment when the horse gets an injury.
Speaking of injuries, it has not been an easy ride to her legendary position as the only woman champion Jockey in Kenya. “I have been through so much – an out-of-focus young adult, (see separate story), accidents, injuries (from the races) and a rare sickness that crippled me out of the races for a time,” Lesley narrates.
Out of her myriad challenges and struggles in life, being diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis (grave muscle weakness), took the highest toll in her life. As her health deteriorated, the pain and many hospital visits kept her off all activities for more than one year.
Myasthenia Gravis, Lesley explains, is an immune disease that requires permanent medication for abatement of symptoms, but one that has no cure.
“It sapped my energy and kept me from my passion. The disease was wearing me away so fast, and I went from 54kg to 44kg,” she says.
Even after her comeback, she kept her riding to a minimum – even accepting rodeo and galloping rides. Her illness, it seems, had softened her by sapping her strength but, despite all this, Lesley fought to be in full control of her life.
“The disease challenged my personality, reducing me from an enthusiastic sportswoman to one fighting with a disability. Were it not for the supporting mechanism that was handy, one that kept urging me to fight the disease back, I think I would have succumbed,” she says.
She says she came out of the ordeal with a new outlook on life.
“I have empathy with those that are going through struggles, especially the youth,” she says. “I pulled through and pursued my passion. You too can rise from the ashes like the peacock!”
Lesley has over 1,000 wins at every cup on Kenya calendar of races and has broken a record as the only woman with a jockeying license in Kenya, having won champion jockeying many times. Lesley’s exploits have not featured in Kenya alone. She spread her race-winning successfully in India, Bangalore, Mysore, and, Zimbabwe.
“Considering that this is a difficult profession full of chauvinistic challenges, I am grateful because I have a job doing what I love,” she says, adding that most people do not get such an opportunity.
Despite her success, one cannot miss Lesley’s humility, apparent gratitude, and respect to those who have contributed to it. She is particularly grateful to Steven Jejuna, a fellow jockey who she says is her mentor and the person who taught her “most of what I know about riding, besides encouraging me amidst chauvinistic attacks.”
She is grateful to the entire community at the racecourse, who have contributed to her journey and regards Italian Ace jockey, Frankie Dettori, among her list of heroes, for his exquisite talents and for his charisma.
“No talent or wit can beat kindness. It sits quietly beyond all things. The best way forward is to keep attempting the impossible. Failure can only manifest when you and your heart give up,” says Lesley. “Thank God!”If you could choose any age, to stay in for the rest of your life, which would it be?