He wasn’t the prettiest jockey to watch- in my books, that honour belonged to the hugely talented, enigmatic, and also highly precocious Eric Saint Martin- but horses travelled for Basil Marcus, another in a long line of South African jockeys, who used their upper body strength to push and shove their rides home as opposed to resorting to the whip.
After first arriving in Hong Kong to ride for local trainer Lam Hung-fei- Mr Lam had an extremely strange way of walking- it didn’t take Basil Marcus long to find his stride and become Champion Jockey in Hong Kong- seven times.
After getting away from Lam’s sashay, he hit his stride riding for trainers Ivan Allen and David Hayes at a time when owner Larry Yung’s horses like Mr Vitality and Oriental Express ruled the turf, both being regular Marcus rides.
In a site called HK Racing Memories, the jockey is remembered with this, well, rather memorable description: “Basil’s strong hands, bright eyes, clean teeth, warm smile and gentle voices are the sweet memories to us.”
I’m unsure about the “gentle voices” and “clean teeth”, but Basil Marcus always had a bloody big smile on his face, and an earnestness that bordered on being on the gooey side of sweetness. But, hey, he could ride winners- five winners at one meeting in Shatin in the 2003-2004 season, and then riding another quintet the next season at Happy Valley.
Those “gentle voices” and “clean teeth” were seen and heard everywhere.
It even prompted then-HKJC CEO, Larry Yung, to tell me over lunch how he thought Basil Marcus could be “The Michael Jordan of Hong Kong racing”.
It was either the Kool-Aid talking, or “Lawwy” having slipped back to being a used car salesman. Or both.
Michael Jordan, handsome, tall basketball legend
Basil Marcus, short, South African legend
What’s always surprised me is how the dominance of South African jockeys in Hong Kong has been underplayed, or else, overlooked.
If one were to “do the math”, Basil Marcus and fellow South African Dougie Whyte, combined to rule and own the Hong Kong Jockeys Premiership for an amazing twenty years- a reign that only ended last season.
Whyte who finished second to Marcus in his first season of riding in Hong Kong, credits Marcus with having “great balance” and being “a tough bastard to get past when he’d have them running up there on the speed”.
It makes one think back to the days of a very much unsung hero of Hong Kong racing in another South African- Bart Leisher.
Leisher was brought out to Hong Kong in the late Eighties by “colourful” trainer Brian Kan ping-chee whose personal run-ins with the law- and Filipina domestic helpers- often eclipsed his on-course successes.
Brian Kan was not only “Hong Kong’s Cups King” during that era, he was also a trailblazer whose powerful stable was one of the first to purchase some very good horses from Ireland whereas his riders, at one time or another, included “The Babe” himself- Brent Thomson, Felix Coetzee and Leisher.
Leisher, like Joao Moreira, was hungry for winners, and was one of the most popular jockey riding in Hong Kong at that time.
Some jockeys who rode against him describe the rider as being “reckless” and “dangerous”.
Yes, Leisher played hard- very hard- and was known for his nocturnal life in Lan Kwai Fong, but, somehow, made miraculous overnight recoveries when race days rolled along until a cruel accident during a race at Happy Valley short-circuited what should have been a brilliant career in the saddle.
He tried to make a comeback in South Africa, but the magic was gone: Those years of rehabilitation had dulled the former sharpness.
Says, Brent Thomson, who got the call-up from Kan to replace him, “Barty was a good jockey riding for quite a ‘lively’ trainer who wanted his jockeys to lead at all costs.
“Mr Kan had the most powerful stable in Hong Kong at that time with horses like Star Mark- Barty and I both won some big races on that one.”
Following the retirement of Hong Kong racing’s favourite son, Tony Cruz- “a brilliant world class jockey”, reminds Thomson- what followed were The Basil Marcus Years.
Though the great Felix Coetzee was in Hong Kong, it was the remarkable success of Marcus that attracted other South African jockeys to Hong Kong- Whyte, Pierre Strydom, “Lucky” Houdalakis, MJ Odendahl, Robbie Fradd, Glyn Schofield, Anton Marcus, Antony Delpech, Weichong Marwing, “honorary” South African Jeff Lloyd, and, more recently, Greg Cheyne, Richard Fourie and, despite being a Mauritian, Karis Teetan, who really came into his own in South Africa.
Of these riders, Robbie Fradd, 50, currently riding on the Gold Coast after a somewhat hasty exit from Singapore, and then a stop-start career back in South Africa, is probably the most interesting of them all.
Almost ungainly and lopsided when riding, and hardly a picture of perfection, horses travelled for him. So did women.
He was and is hardly an oil painting, but Robbie Fradd’s pulling power, like that of the famous Maximus Swordsmanus Gerald Mosse, is the stuff of legends.
With backing from the mighty Ivan Allen yard, Fradd, who had his own male groupie- a strange looking racing fan, who would attend every meeting to cheer on his idol dressed as a jockey- was Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey during the 2000-2001 season, and associated with champion horses Electronic Unicorn and Fairy King Prawn.
He won nearly every major Hong Kong race plus the Yasuda Kinen in 2000 on the Ivan Allen-trained Fairy King Prawn.
“The South African boys are very good PR men, and have always gone out of their way to work with trainers and even owners,” explains Tony Cruz.
“Basil (Marcus) was one of the best at this. He was hungry for rides- and he went after them- and got there first. He sold himself very well.
“I remember telling Douglas (Whyte) that if he were to ever win the Jockey Premiership, he first had to beat Basil in securing the best rides.
“He’s now the best at what he does because he is very good at presenting himself, he’s not shy to go after the rides he wants, he works well with the trainers, and he delivers on the track- where it matters”.
Add to all of this the wins in Hong Kong of South African equine stars like Eagle Mountain, JJ The Jet Plane, the remarkable win of Variety Club in last year’s running of the QE2 Cup, and what we have is the makings of a very good documentary and photographic exhibition on The South African connection with Hong Kong racing.
It’s a story that should be told as it’s one that’s far from waning.
In fact, it’s probably only the first few chapters of a very successful and colourful ongoing novel.