High-flying Soweto pilot set to scale the giddy heights of horse racing
WITH a name like Fundi, she was always destined to be a person who was knowledgeable with extensive skills, and capable of doing an expert job. These are just some of the attributes that the former COO of the Airports Company SA, Fundi Sithebe, brings to the horse racing industry. Sithebe, a qualified pilot from Diepkloof, Soweto, is the newly appointed CEO of 4Racing, the new horseracing operator in South Africa. Officially 4Racing will take over the reins from the sport’s long-standing former operator, Phumelela Gaming, on December 1. However, the newbies are already out of the starting blocks with rich pickings of R207 million for 240 races next year in Gauteng, Western Cape and Eastern Cape. It is a substantial increase on the 2021 stakes that stood at R186m for the three regions. On Saturday, 4Racing and Sithebe will be ready to mingle with horse racing's mink and manure set at the historic Turffontein racecourse for the R2m Gauteng Summer Cup, a signature event on South Africa's racing calendar. Under the watch of Sithebe, 4Racing have started the ball rolling for a new inclusive culture in horse racing circles. "The Gauteng Summer Cup is one of the premier races in the country and indeed Africa," said Sithebe at the Summer Cup barrier draw at Restaurant Vilakazi in Soweto this week. "We are very proud that we had the barrier draw in my hometown, Soweto, making sure we involve the grooms, who are so important in terms of the day-to-day well-being of the horses. "It was such an emotional and amazing moment that we could have them here to help conduct the draw for this premier race. Many of them have been an integral part of the horse racing industry. It is time that it is acknowledged more than ever." Sithebe has proved to be a vibrant leader with business savvy, and her touch has been like a breath of fresh air in racing circles. The grooms were at the receiving end of her business ingenuity when for the first time in history, they participated in the official Summer Cup lane draw. There were the smiling faces suited, and double-breasted nogal, with ties instead of their usual stable gear and overalls. It was the kind of subtle shift 4Racing wants to make to ensure horse racing is not only for the elite but appealing to a broad cross-section of the population. "It is important that we all move together towards a new purpose, principles, and new culture," said Sithebe. "There will be a focus on key business processes, and that will be of paramount importance. "We will seek to rebuild trust between the major stakeholder groups across the horse racing industry. Some relationships were strained during a difficult time for the industry." Since 4Racing has taken the reins from long-standing former operator, Phumelela Gaming, Sithebe has said it was important to drive the operation for profit. However, she hastened to add that at the same time, it should aggrandize the experience for all, regardless of background and standing. “All aspects of horse racing should offer opportunities for social interaction, both in the physical and digital worlds," she said. "We believe there are significant opportunities to increase excitement levels and interest across all customer segments and mediums. "We will, therefore, be exploring not only how to enhance the physical on-track experiences, but also how to create digital environments where our customers can build meaningful social connections.” Thanks to Sithebe placing her stamp on the industry, thousands of grooms, jockeys, trainers, horse racing staff, owners and punters, will be thrust into the spotlight and take up meaningful places in the industry. One person who will share the limelight with Sithebe this weekend is fellow Sowetan, Kabelo Matsunyane. As a jockey, he will ensure there is a Sowetan presence off and on the track. “I am raising the flag high for Sowetans. They are lovely people who love fun and good times," said Matsunyane, the Meadowlands jockey. "I have grown from strength to strength in the horse racing industry. "The nerves are there, but I am just excited and looking forward to the Summer Cup on Saturday,” says Matsunyane. For those who will venture a flutter on Saturday, it is worth knowing that Matsunyane is looking to cause an upset at the Summer Cup. He will be saddled on Mike de Kock’s rank outsider Sparkling Water but he’s determined to capture the spotlight. If Matsunyane weaves his magic in the star-studded field on Saturday, De Kock, the legendary South African racehorse trainer, will be sipping bubbly rather than sparkling water.