The upcoming Hong Kong racing season sees the first female jockey since Sherie Kong hung up her saddle in 1998 to mix it with the big boys. And though it’s always good to introduce change into something- unless it’s change for the sake of change- one can’t help but wonder- and worry- how this new Hong Kong-born apprentice, Kei Chiong Ka-fei, pictured below, will fare. Yes, she’s learnt the rudiments of riding in races in New Zealand, but so has almost every young Chinese jockey currently riding in Hong Kong- Derek Leung, Keith Yeung, Vincent Ho, Matthew Chadwick, Alvin Ng, Dickie Lui and, most recently, Jack Wong.
Though some of these local riders have shown significant improvement over the past few seasons, they’re never ever going to reach the lofty heights in the saddle achieved by Hong Kong’s favourite racing son Tony Cruz.
Cruz was a natural, and, perhaps, being Macanese, it gave him the physique and internal fortitude lacking in Hong Kong-born Chinese jockeys. It was this and his great talent that saw him ride for kings and queens and the Aga Khan in Europe. The young Cruz rode against, and, often, outrode such legends of the turf as Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Willie Carson, Stevie Cauthen, Frankie Dettori etc. Tony Cruz was born to ride- and, boy, could he ride.
Since then, local riders have succeeded through trial and error. However, racing tracks where world class jockeys like Zac Purton, Gerald Mosse, Joao Moreira, Douglas Whyte, Brett Prebble and others are going all out to win, are not training grounds for the inexperienced. The last thing any of these Group 1 winning jockeys want is to tippy toe around, or be stopped in their tracks by a young rider with a Learner plate on their back.
Having said this, Yeung, Leung and Ho showed last season that they had improved, and given the right opportunities, they can ride their fair share of winners albeit mainly those in the lower grades or way down in the handicaps. But, it’s much more than just having opportunities- or limited opportunities.
Hong Kong’s racing model is unique. It only races twice a week, and apprentices don’t get the opportunities that their counterparts in Europe or Australia get to hone their skills with the big name world class jockeys getting the plum rides. And then, perhaps, the most telling factor: Riding and competing successfully against a world class roster cannot happen with an apprenticeship that relies on rides at race meetings in country NSW or Queensland. Or New Zealand. And that is in no way to denigrate either of those Australian States, or the land of the long black cloud. The reality is that the best intent doesn’t always produce the best result. Experience and lots of it, practice, and lots of it, is the very obvious piece of the puzzle that is sorely missing.
Improvement in their riding is one thing. but there’s that nagging question as to whether the current crop of young local riders are good enough, or are just making up the numbers and the required quota of Hong Kong-born riders needed in racing out here. And here lies a story that, perhaps, too many of us have skirted around for too long and made polite noises about.
The fact is that none of the local jockeys will be world class. Being slight of build, puts them at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to fighting out a strong finish, and most will plateau out and become new models of former battling Hong Kong jockeys like Vincent Sit and Terry Chan, or at best, another Howard Cheng.
Hong Kong sets a very high bar with every aspect of its racing. It is a shining light – call it the torch bearer for world’s best practice in racing. It extends from getting the best roster of trainers, jockeys, administrators and professional specialists in their own fields. Its integrity processes and protocols are acknowledged as world’s best. Its racehorses are now frequent occupants of positions on the top ten rankings of racehorses, globally. It’s marketing and the creation of the Happy Wednesday brand has made the rest of the racing world take notice and frantically pick out which parts of the concept they can replicate.
Imagine, just imagine a Hong Kong China Riding Academy. Yes, a Hong Kong China Riding Academy, where the skills and expertise of some of the most successful jockeys of the very recent past were able to be utilised to turn the dreams of the fresh-faced young Chinese apprentices into reality. An Academy which is a permanent part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club model, and continually addresses the challenge of making Chinese apprentices much more competitive than they are. An Academy which takes on a skills education role, and is mandatory for Chinese apprentices. An academy, which also educates in a raft of essential “life skills”.
How many apprentices have any understanding of the skills of communications? Or managing their finances? Or health and nutrition? Or handling the challenges of fame and fortune? Throw in general physical and mental health? And let’s never forget the law – the rules of racing and the rule of law in the community.
Unlike every other racing nation which is challenged on every front – be it integrity, competition from sports betting, and privately owned wagering operators and IP, Hong Kong is still firmly in control of its own destiny.
How many other nations can boast control over such fundamental aspects of their racing DNA?
A Hong Kong China Riding Academy based on world’s best practice would be a “given”, and a necessary and vital part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club racing model. And as an extension of the often underestimated philanthropic role that the Hong Kong Jockey Club plays in the community, imagine how the role that a Riding Academy can play in addressing and servicing the burgeoning interest in equestrian sport in China.
Looking towards the future, the really big question is how many teenagers in Hong Kong in 2015 and beyond wish to go through the rigours of what is a very steep and disciplined learning curve needed to become a jockey- the years as an apprentice, the constant fight to keep one’s weight down, trackwork, trials, errors, and with no guarantee of ever making it.
Today’s Hong Kong youth are part of a restless generation. They’re angry, they’re frustrated, and they feel let down by all sides. We have seen this boil over in last year’s Occupy Central protests and Umbrella Movement that brought most of Hong Kong to a halt.
This frustration- this call to arms, this fight for change- continues today with Hong Kong youth spoilt for choice. And like asking, who grows up wanting to be a race caller- and which will, eventually, become an endangered species, worldwide- the future of there being Hong Kong-born riding talent is bleak. The youth of Hong Kong don’t come from a racing culture, nor have a passion for horses. They have other priorities and greater career opportunities.
Saying this, finding exciting, young Chinese riding talent is not a No Entry zone. But, like love, it’s about looking for this talent in all the right places.
Should we not be tapping into the riding skills and heritage of one of the oldest and largely forgotten civilizations that is Mongolia, and what it can offer to racing, where kids as young as nine, if not younger, would make “pony club” graduates look completely amateurish?
Like the young riding talent in places like Panama, Mexico, and São Paulo where brilliant riders like Angel Cordeiro, Joao Moreira, Joe Santos and so many others, emerged and stamped their authority on the sport, the next generation of Chinese- or as close to China as one can be- will be Mongolia- and this new riding talent could be another “world’s best practice” USP that the Hong Kong Jockey Club can own and add to its investment portfolio.
It doesn’t stop here. The opportunities are unlimited and the Club can take horse racing to where it’s never gone to before.
With the HKJC’s considerable investment in the state-of-the-art training facilities in Conghua, situated in Central Guandong, the Club has an exciting springboard into the future of the sport and the perfect entrée into bona fide horse racing in Mainland China.
The Conghua Training Centre project also offers the HKJC a ready-made training facility for new young Chinese riding talent. Imagine this scenario: Like the NBA discovered Yao Ming, the HKJC finds young riding talent in Inner and Outer Mongolia, and those provinces around this area- a region where, unlike Hong Kong, there is a culture built on horses and horse racing.
Having visited Mongolia, lived with some of its tribes and seen the young horsemen riding bare back, and their incredible affinity and love of horses, what we have, almost in our backyard, is, quite possibly, the next generation of riders- jockeys who can easily bring new excitement to the sport through their considerable skills as horsemen and the uniqueness of their nationality.
Now imagine this raw talent being harnessed, nurtured and mentored by such great riders by legends like Felix Coetzee and Douglas Whyte, both graduates from South Africa’s hugely respected Jockey Academy that is SAJA, and both understanding how racing in Hong Kong works under the mighty baton of the HKJC.
An Apprentice Jockey Academy in China- perhaps in Conghua? With its readymade training facilities? Why not?
To document what could be a real game changer in the sport and truly expand its customer base, a reality series- and documentary- and even short film for a prestigious event like the Sundance Film Festival- based on discovering and seeing this talent succeed? Why not?
These are Racing Matters® that matter to us as it means breaking new ground and attracting new media partners beyond the racing media.
It means being an independent game changer with no past or extra baggage to carry and not bound by red tape. And on the subject of new and tackling different racing matters like these, will be, well, Racing Matters®.
Watch this space for the online bulletin board for the world of horse racing that will be all things that matter- Racing Matters®. This will be the mothership of much more to come. It will be a great ride. Promise.
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We-Enhance Inc, Fast Track Global Ltd
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