The first time I saw, who turned out to be Brent Thomson, was at the Kato Bar at Shatin Racecourse, everyone’s favourite watering hole at the time to meet after the races and celebrate or wallow in the miseries of losing. What made me do a double take was actually the stunning and statuesque blonde on his arm before checking out her companion- a short, handsome gentleman wearing a long scarf and an even longer overcoat. “Isn’t he bloody hot in all that gear?” I thought to myself before asking someone whether that was Darren Gauci or Alan Munro. It was the early Nineties and my embryonic days as a racing hobbyist, and was yet to know who was who and just what a Who’s Who of Racing Brent Thomson aka “The Babe” aka “BT” aka “The Wanganui Wiz Kid” was. Of course, this was not to be the last time, I’d see “Uncle” Brent with a stunner on his arm and dressed like Al Capone.
At that time, BT was riding for the most powerful stable in Hong Kong- that of Brian Kan Ping-chee, a character as colourful as he was controversial, and who struck fear in the hearts of jockeys, owners and racing administrators.
Even today, when he makes one of his cameo appearances at the races to lead in some horse you just know he has a huge say in, local racing fans salute him like some long lost father figure and the most well-known and successful Chinese trainer.
Brent Thomson rode for Mr Kan for almost four years after receiving the offer to be the trainer’s stable jockey after the shocking fall of Bart Leisher, the extremely underrated South African jockey who could have gone on to be anything. Leisher’s success story in Hong Kong- along with his almost Rock’n Roll antics off-course- needs retelling, but which we’ll keep for another day. No, this story belongs to Brent Thomson, a jockey who rode against the best in the world, won four Cox Plates in five years, a record he still holds for the most number of wins in Australia’s premier weight for age race. The story of course began in his birthplace New Zealand, where as an apprentice he quickly became the “next big thing”. It did not take long for the “next big thing” to make his stunning impact across the Tasman, when at his first ride in the Cox Plate on a rain soaked quirky amphitheatre like track, Moonee Valley, the baby faced “Wanganui Wiz Kid” drove Fury’s Order to the winning post ahead of his rivals.
The rest as they is history. It didn’t take long for the legendary Colin Hayes, one of Australia’s big three in the training ranks to snap the young apprentice up and retain him as his stable jockey.
It was rare for a big and successful stable to take on a raw and relatively unknown talent and entrust an apprentice to do a “man’s job”. But Colin Hayes knew what he was doing and one of the most successful racing partnerships was born. Trainer and jockey premierships followed for the partnership and together they were successful in some of Australia’s most prestigious best known races. And it wasn’t long before one of Colin Hayes’ best known clients – Robert Sangster, who called the Isle of Man home, talked BT into rolling the dice and have a crack at riding in the UK and Europe. And so began another chapter in the life of BT. Through Robert Sangster and his network BT developed his own network in UK racing and there was no turning back.
Mixing it with the rich and famous was and still is second nature to him and he became as well known for his many exploits off the course as was his incredible and glittering career in the saddle.
Flamboyant would be an understatement to describe BT’s lifestyle at the prime of his career- the expensive clothes, the hand-made Italian shoes- that didn’t fit, the white Rolls Royce, traveling first class all the way, the detours to get married- three times- if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again- and through it all, a brilliant rider and someone whom you know will be there for you.
The man has seen it all, he’s experienced the highs and lows of racing, knows full well the flights of fancy of fair weather friends, and the importance of understanding the worth of true friendship in a sport where way too often, whether a jockey or trainer or owner or friend, you’re only as good as your last win.
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You came out to Hong Kong after achieving enormous success in Australia and then Europe. Was it difficult to adapt?
Not at all. I guess the point of difference was having much more to do with owners on a personal level than in other countries, and as a consequence I developed some long lasting wonderful and enduring personal relationships which we have maintained to this day. The other point of difference which took a bit of getting used to was the very obvious “class” system which is not just confined to racing but across society.
What was racing in HK like in those days, and who are the characters you remember? Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a regular visitor, I remember.
Racing in Hong Kong was very exciting during my stint between 1989-92. There was a steady rise in the quality of horses imported to Hong Kong, parallel with the substantial increases in prize money and the willingness of owners to spend more on buying better credentialed horses from overseas. The quality of trainers and jockeys winning licenses to train and ride in Hong Kong improved dramatically as Hong Kong became a destination of choice for the ambitious and aspirational trainers from all over the world. It was great to be a part of the early stages of the successful modern era of Hong Kong racing.
A tough one, BT- but what would be your career highlights. Let’s keep these down to an even dozen.
Well, I suppose the four Cox Plates is a major highlight, along with the Ascot Gold Cup during the world famous Royal Ascot carnival; winning two Caulfield Cups; two Derby’s in Australia; the St James Palace Stakes, Coventry Stakes and QE11 Stakes at Royal Ascot; and riding 6 winners on a card for the late Colin Hayes, father of David Hayes, and for whom I was stable jockey for 8 seasons.
Brent Thomson off to Royal Ascot 1986
Was it a difficult decision to leave all the success in Oz and ride in the UK?
No, again it was a very exciting period of my riding career and life, riding for and getting to know Robert Sangster. It was the perfect entrée card to European racing. Robert remained a close personal friend beyond my time in the UK. I also developed and still maintain a close friendship with the Hills family, Barry Hills being retained me as his stable jockey. I rode for some of the biggest names in Europe including HM Queen Elizabeth. They were times I cherished and I was lucky enough to ride some extremely well bred and high class horses.
William Championship Spring York
Did you have to work extra hard to be accepted over there at a time when every great jockey seemed to be riding in the UK at the same time- Piggott, Eddery, Carson, Swinburn, Dettori, Cauthen etc and a young gun from Hong Kong named Tony Cruz?
Yes it was. Learning about the various tracks and their differences and “quirks” takes plenty of time and getting accustomed to. During the 7 seasons I was based in the UK, I rode at all but two tracks. Yes, all the jockeys whom you mentioned made up the “who’s who” of the jockey roster in Europe at the time, and there were many more, and I was extremely fortunate to ride and compete against the world’s best. . You mentioned Tony Cruz, well for the record I rated Tony one of the very best whom I ever rode against.
You’ve had such solid friendships over the years with the greatest horsemen, especially with Tony Cruz, and Gerald Mosse. How and why have these lasted?
Gerald and I have remained close friends to this day and we are in regular contact. I caught up personally with Tony and Pauline Cruz in Dubai during the World Cup carnival last year, which was great. I still keep in touch with Steve Cauthen by email. Of course logistically it is difficult for face to face contact with many of my mates in Europe but whenever our paths cross it is always great to get together.
What were those years riding in Macau like, and what made you decide to give up riding at a pretty early age?
Macau was my last port of call after riding winners in 27 countries. I was contracted as the Club jockey and enjoyed a successful time, but living had its challenges and it had an impact on enjoying riding. Whilst Hong Kong had started to welcome back jockeys who had previously been contracted to ride and Singapore had just opened up as a separate racing venue, but with a limited pool of horses and an over supply of jockeys, I did not want to go back to Australia and resume my riding career. I had made a personal promise to myself that when I stopped enjoying doing what I did best, it was time to hang up my saddle and riding boots, which I did at the age of 42.
Tell us something people don’t understand about a jockey’s life, or if you get upset when the peanut gallery talk through their pockets about this and that jockey giving one a run?
First, if you reach the top echelon of your profession and you experience much more highs than lows, then the world is your oyster. I’ve been so fortunate in that regard. Staying at the top of the tree is an art in itself. As far as jockeys being blamed and accused of anything and everything, it’s part and parcel of racing, and has been so since racing first began and is unlikely to change.
What’s life like for “The Babe” today? Any regrets?
Well, since retiring I have had the good fortune to represent New Zealand Bloodstock in Australia, which I have enjoyed immensely. I have had a wonderful association with the Vela family, which has made my working life even more rewarding. I have not missed riding at all, but in saying that it is easy to feel nostalgic around Spring racing carnival time, but nothing lasts forever and I can accept that without any difficulty. Any regrets? Not really, although if I was riding today, if I could not be at least a 25% better jockey I would be surprised, as I would be a lot more disciplined, for the simple reason that in the era in which I rode it was very much a “champagne” life style. Still, it is often said that it is better to have been to the mountain than not!!!!
Who are the best for you, BT- apart from your longtime partner Teresa? The best horse, jockey, trainer, owner and best lesson learnt along your long ride?
Of course Teresa has been fantastic for me. I have met and got to know some great people through racing. The best horse I ever rode was easily Dulcify. There will only be one Lester Piggott and one Robert Sangster. My late father always reminded me “don’t get bigger than the game itself, and remember those you come across on your way up the ladder of success, otherwise the fall will be a lot faster”. It ‘s a lesson I have not forgotten.
Hans, Thoroughly enjoyed this interview with BT, made me all nostalgic, one of racing’s great guys, both professionally and personally. Count myself lucky our times in HK racing coincided. Best, Lawrence.