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.
“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 per victory. Average monthly wages in Senegal were estimated at around $180 at the end of 2019.
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.
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 16km (10 miles) to enrol in the nearest training programme.
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.
Calling Diop “very gifted”, Bao said: “He could compete up to 50 years with his weight and size.”
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, had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Diop’s skills were put to the test at the racetrack in Thies, Senegal’s third largest city.
Dressed in vibrant yellow and blue, he calmly mounted his steed and led it towards the track.
He 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,” Diop said. “In Morocco or France, anywhere there is horse racing.”