Meet the teenage Senegalese jockey racing to fame

A head shorter than his peers, Fallou Diop quickly vanishes into the crowd of jockeys preparing for early morning drills in the western Senegalese village of Niaga.

When the racing begins, however, his crouched silhouette is far ahead of the field, aided by an effortless riding style.

“When I start riding I get a bit stressed, but after a moment, it’s over,” Diop says. “At the time of the race, I’m only thinking of victory.”

Diop is one of Senegal‘s most promising jockeys, having won the country’s top racing prize when he was just 17. He hopes to begin racing in France next year, realising a dream coveted by some of Senegal’s foremost riders.

Fallou Diop holds onto Raissa Betty as they cross a road


A stableboy puts a saddle onto a horse before a training session at the Lambafar stable


Horses are an integral part of life in Senegal. Horse-drawn buggies are ubiquitous across the country, and over the past 50 years competitive racing has developed into a national pastime.

“It’s a passion in my family,” Diop said. “Since my grandfather we’ve supported horses, then my father after him.”

In villages like Niaga, where Diop lives, horse feed and supply shops line the main roads, and fields are dotted with men on horseback.

Adorned with colourful ceramic tiles on a busy back street, the house Diop shares with 12 family members is getting a new roof thanks to the money from his winnings.

Depending on the number of horses in a race, Diop can earn up to $600 dollars per victory. Average monthly wages in Senegal were estimated at around $180 at the end of 2019.

Fallou Diop rides his horse during a training session


Fallou Diop strokes Raissa Betty


Fallou Diop sits next to his mother Ndeye Boye and brothers as his sister, carrying her son, watches on at their home in Niaga


Diop’s success is a source of pride for his father, who spent much of his life driving a horse and buggy around Niaga. His older brother, who also hoped to be a jockey before a growth spurt got in the way, boasts of Diop’s achievements to visitors.

“It’s the elders who taught us everything since we were young, and that’s how I became passionate about horses,” Diop said.

Fallou Diop prepares to compete in a race that is head weekly by the Hippodrome Ndiaw Macodou DIOP in Thies, Senegal


Fallou Diop at the start line


Diop, middle, during the race


Diop, who has dropped formal schooling, was 12 when he left a tailoring apprenticeship to pursue racing. According to his father, he was so determined that he walked 10 miles to enrol in the nearest training program.

Today, Diop and other jockeys in Niaga are taught by Adama Bao, whose family has maintained a stud farm near the salty shores of Senegal’s Lac Rose for three generations.

“[Diop] is very gifted,” Bao said. “He could compete up to 50 years with his weight and size.”

Adama Bao, a coach who owns the Lambafar stable, speaks to Fallou Diop, 19, and other jockeys before a race


Trophies awarded to Fallou Diop are displayed at his coach Adama Bao’s home, who owns the Lambafar stable, in Dakar


Bao plans to send Diop to France for three months in early 2022 to race for a French-Senegalese breeder. He would have travelled last year, Bao said, if not for the Covid-19 pandemic.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Diop’s skills were put to the test at the racetrack in Thiès, Senegal’s third largest city.

Dressed in vibrant yellow and blue, Diop calmly mounted his steed and led it towards the track.

Fallou Diop wears a protective mask before competing


Diop went on to finish first in three of his five races that day, taking home nearly $1,000 in winnings.

“I want to be the best jockey in a country other than mine,” he said. “In Morocco or France, anywhere there is horse racing.”

Reuters, photography by Zohra Bensemra


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