“Didn’t they say the same thing about Basil Marcus?” Well-known barrister, larger-than-life character and horse owner Kevin Egan, who has seen all sides of horse racing in Hong Kong over very many years- the good, the bad, the ugly and the fugly- was making a point over lunch about the riding style of Irish jockey Neil Callan- and style versus substance.
Perhaps not the prettiest jockey in the world to watch, Callan does what his backers want: He gets his horses first past the post. Sitting pretty doesn’t necessarily mean riding winners, something not lost on Big Kev, who compared Callan’s style, or lack of it, to the constantly-pumping, push, push action of Basil Marcus, the South African jockey who ruled the roost here for many years before Whyte Lightning struck and kept striking for thirteen consecutive years.
Basil Marcus was hardly a pretty jockey to watch, but, as he constantly proved to tough task masters like trainers David Hayes and the legendary Ivan Allan, horses traveled for him- and racing fans loved him for it. Same goes for Neil Callan though he is yet to reach the lofty heights of Marcus, Champion Jockey of Hong Kong seven times during the course of twelve seasons in Hong Kong.
Forget all the talk about “Iron Man” and being “the tough guy of Hong Kong racing.” That’s just Twitter verbiage to fill up the echoes of media silence. Neil Callan is a major asset to Hong Kong racing- and a welcome addition to the city’s International jockey ranks, because he’s fiercely competitive, he’s committed to making the city his home, he’s found that balance between being a world class jockey, husband and father, and as Kevin Egan, an Australian, who successfully defended the Irishman against what might have been a career-short circuiting suspension, says, he has helped break up any possibilities in Hong Kong of there being another monopoly of jockeys from Down Under in the riding ranks.
When first issued a riding license to ride here on a three-month contract during the 2010-2011 season- he rode five winners- there were more than a few eyebrows raised. Neil Callan was hardly a household name to local racing fans whereas in recent years, English jockeys have hardly set Hong Kong’s world of turf on fire. Who even remembers that Tom Quealy rode here? Or Seb Sanders? Or Jaime Spencer? Actually, who remembers Tom Quealy- period? Not since another Irishman- Michael Kinane- has an Englishman created such an impact on Hong Kong horse racing. He’s like Sinatra singing “My Way.” He’s taken the blows- the falls, the suspensions, the fallouts from Hong Kong racing’s fickle merry-go-round- and through it all, he’s done it his way. And local racing fans respect him for that.
There’s much to admire about Neil Callan, something which often tends to be overlooked when competing for media space with, especially, the on-track exploits of Zac Purton and that Magic Man- Joao Moreira, and their loyal cheerleading squads.
What’s particularly interesting in this success story is how Neil Callan has managed to win over Tony Cruz. Hong Kong racing’s favourite son, and the only riding talent from Hong Kong to make his mark globally- and the only local rider who ever will- has seen them all. He’s ridden against the best- Piggott, Eddery, Cauthen, Carson, Dettori, The Babe, Joe Mercer- and has, over the years, as a trainer, retained South African greats Douglas Whyte and Felix Coetzee as his stable jockeys. If one would have asked Cruz two years ago whether he would have utilised Neil Callan’s services as much as he does today, the odds are that the answer would have been a resounding No- not when he can call on the services of Whyte, longtime bon ami Gerald Mosse, Brett Prebble, Zac Purton and, of course, Joao Moreira. And though he has turned to Purton and Moreira, surprisingly, their services have only been used very sparingly and sporadically. For whatever reasons, the two leading jockeys don’t seem to fit into his plans. Neil Callan, however, has quickly become Tony Cruz’s Go To jockey.
It all started when Mirco Demuro, the regular rider of Blazing Speed, returned to Japan on a long-term riding contract. Callan, knowing he needed to form a partnership with a galloper like the then-promising Blazing Speed to explore and enjoy Group 1 success that would elevate his status and build up his brand appeal, pursued the ride like dog with a bone. “I think I was just so relentless in getting the ride that Tony probably gave it just to get me off his back”, jokes Callan. Tony Cruz takes his career very seriously, and offering rides on his horses with the ability to win some of the biggest races around is no laughing matter. Let’s not forget that we’re talking here about the man who trained the great Silent Witness. Despite a number of other riders with stronger CVs banging on his door and doing somersaults and handstands to get the ride on Blazing Speed, Tony Cruz decided that Callan was the man for the job. Ask Tony what made him come to this decision, and he’ll look at you as if you’re barking mad: “Why not? Callan can ride, man. Look at what we’ve achieved with the horse, man.” You’re right, man.
To date, starting with winning the Group 1 Standard And Chartered Champions Cup in May of 2014, Blazing Speed, with Callan aboard, has added other Group 1 successes to the portfolios of horse, jockey and trainer- The Longines Jockey Club Cup and The Audemars Piguet QE 11 Cup.
Last weekend, the new C Team added another string to their bow when the pair combined to win the Class 1 Kwangtung Handicap Cup with another equine force on the rise in Beauty Only- again, thanks to a very determined ride by Callan that might not exactly have been poetry in motion, but, tactically, it was smarter than rides of the average bear, Boo Boo.
This is where the “Iron Man” becomes Canny Callan. He is deceivingly low key, and what you see is not always what you get. Behind that happy-go-lucky exterior is a thinking man’s jockey who watches, takes in what’s relevant, discards the clutter, and leaves the clowns, the jugglers and magic men to do all the tricks of the trade while he goes about his business with a long-term strategy in mind.
During Hong Kong International Week this year, don’t be surprised if Neil Callan doesn’t pull a few rabbits of his own from his Paddy Power hat- and with Cruz Control propelling him along.