By Hans Ebert
It’s always interesting when either you’re on top, or someone’s on top of you, and the current standings in the Jockey Premiership in Hong Kong sees an enthralling battle of talent, wits, politics, and, most key, how much being business savvy is part and parcel of being a world class rider. No one’s stuck in the Nineties and prepared to work on Maggie’s Farm no more for a pat on the head and nothing else. Not when you’re part of the sports main attractions.
While Joao Moreira seems to be leading everyone a merry samba at the head of Hong Kong’s Jockey standings, the conga line behind The Magic Man is an interesting buncha coconuts- Douglas Whyte, Brett Prebble, Gerald Mosse, Neil Callan and Zac Purton. The most interesting at this early stage of the innings is Brett Prebble whose wins recently aboard extremely average gallopers in Glacier Blue and, especially, Rhumba King belied the ordinariness of the races. Both were Group 1 rides from a jockey listening to AWB play “Pick Up The Pieces”, and turning crumbs into brochetta.
After a somewhat laid back approach to his riding stint in Hong Kong at the start of last season, something seems to have woken up this Melbourne Cup winning jockey. Ironically, it was soon after winning The Race That Stops A Nation in 2012 that things seemed to slow down for this excellent rider.
Let’s never forget how close he came to ending the reign of Douglas Whyte during the 2009-10 season. It took some magic of his own for Whyte to peg back what seemed an insurmountable lead to win that premiership by one winner. Known as a “confidence jockey” who thrives on success, the Jockeys Premiership that eventful season was for Brett Prebble to lose. And whether he choked or not, he lost it. Though regaining much by winning on the Lloyd Williams-owned Green Moon, a delayed return to Hong Kong saw him lose his main support system in the stables of Caspar Fownes, David Hall and Dennis Yip. Fownes and Yip threw their support behind Purton- key to him winning his first Hong Kong Jockey Premiership- whereas Hall spread the wealth around with some very astute choices of riders including Ben “The Plunger” So who didn’t let the side down and helped pull off some frighteningly accurate major coups.
But getting back to Brett Prebble, the Force is back and and may The Force be with you when following a rider who, rather naively, has been left out in the cold for too long by some, and is now back singing that he’s up there where he belongs. Welcome back, Kotter, and welcome back, Brett Prebble. He brings the Hong Kong riding ranks soufflé rising to another level.
Of course, Joao Moreira and Zac Purton each have their staunch cheerleading squads in the racing media, who frequently underline that the Jockeys Premiership is a two horse race. And this might be the case. Now that the excellent Purton has got his mojo back after a late start to the season following a freakish accident to his ankle- and back with a vengeance with a winning double on Monday- it could easily have been a quartet of winners- Moreira might not have his own way out in front. And while there will always be conjecture and speculation about The Magic Man’s future plans and whether the world will be his sushi platter or plate of kebabs, right here and now, the pack chasing The Pied Piper of São Paulo is also absorbing to watch and understand how the leading jockeys today need to be astute businessmen and protect and market their brands.
The value of being a big name international rider is not lost on those who are in demand around the world. Racing clubs might not like this as it could be seen as a power shift that they can no longer control. But this is all part of progress and a different type of “fan engagement”- jockeys engaging with those who can further their careers and ensure that their boots are lined with gold.
So, while Joao Moreira makes hay while the sun shines and is in that enviable position to pick and choose his rides and make different cameo appearances around the world, those behind him are not meekly playing follow the leader.
The hugely experienced and successful Gerald Mosse, for example, would, no doubt, be thinking of adding more Group 1 successes to his portfolio. Douglas Whyte must be thinking of ways to achieve the international success that has so far alluded him. Neil Callan is quickly building up a Group 1 portfolio of rides, young Karis Teetan could soon be traveling far with the Ricky Yiu-trained Blizzard whereas Zac Purton has watched many things unfold in front of him during his years in Hong Kong where one either grows up or slows down. Purton has learnt from the successes and mistakes of other riders. He has almost reinvented himself to be an extremely commercial and valuable asset to the racing world- and, by that, one means looking beyond Hong Kong and Australia. The scary thing for other jockeys is that no matter how good he is now, Zac Purton is still a work in progress.
As mentioned here a number of times is that Hong Kong not only has some of the world’s best racing twice a week with the largest turnover, there is also the extra carrot of a 15 percent tax on earnings. For any of the riders mentioned above, Hong Kong, as a base of operations, is simple business sense. From Hong Kong, the rest of the racing world is a hop, skip and a plane ride away.
As many now-retired world class jockeys have mentioned, those days when there would be a two month break from racing in Hong Kong, and everyone took off for a holiday, are over. If one of the top riders, and depending on the offers, the rides, and that will to win while constantly adding to their bank balances, there’s no time for an intermission.
It’s all business as usual with Hong Kong racing unique in instilling these business opportunities to every rider who comes out here and is committed to making things work. It’s what has always made Hong Kong a magnet for the greatest riders in the world, but, these days, there’s the added bonus of being seen by the world and becoming a global brand.
Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Stevie Cauthen, Michael Kinane, Walter Swinburn, Willie Shoemaker et al- every one a great jockey- never had this opportunity- the opportunity to be a global brand with even sponsorship value. Horse racing and technology had not travelled as far as it has today.
Yes, there must always be the great horses, but, equally, there must be great jockeys to partner them- and to be paid extremely well to form these partnerships and be part of these success stories. It’s about spreading the wealth and not short-changing anyone in the process. Pun probably intended. It’s about taking horse racing to another level and piloted by a new generation of riders with their own business models- and those managing them. It had to happen.