By Hans Ebert
There’s something about the term “local rider” that’s almost derogatory, or, perhaps, dismissive, and one would have thought that, by now in this age of technology and, as Doors once sang about breaking through to the other side, a new expression would have entered Hong Kong racing’s lexicon.
When some of us hear this term- “local rider”- our memory banks tap into the distant past and such colourful characters who seemed to have graduated from the Pony Express School of Riding- WH “Rambo” Tse, Vincent Sit, Louis KY Ho, KH “Darkie” Hung, WT Hung, Alan MC Tam, Terry Chan, YY Choy etc.- riders who might have had all the determination in the world to win races, but simply didn’t have the God-given talent to become more than what they were: Chinese cowboys. There’s simply no other way of describing them, yet still, some wielded a great deal of power on and off the track through their association with stables and owners and access to various permits for importing horses. They might have struggled to ride winners, but they weren’t struggling financially.
It was all for one and one for all and this was how the dice rolled back in the day when the Hong Kong riding ranks saw an ebb and flow of names like Philip Robinson, Wally Hood, Danny Brereton, Geoff Lewis, Nigel Tiley, Johnny Roe, Basil Marcus, Bart Leisher, David Brosnan. Ray Setches, Peter Miers, Rod Staples and the long shadow of then-Champion Jockey Gary Moore.
“You’ve got to remember that during those days- those colonial days- it was the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and there was no Apprentice Scheme and when there finally was one, it was in its infancy,” explains The Babe, the legend that is Brent Thomson who rode with such great success in Hong Kong during that time. “From what I remember, (former English jockey) Brian Rouse was involved in mentoring the apprentices during those early days along with David Childs and Philip Waldren. It wasn’t the very professional school for apprentices it is today and such a priority for the Club”.
Apprentices aside, these were the days when jockeys like WH Rambo Tse- how he got this English name shows someone with a great sense of humour at work- and others eventually left for Macau to ply their trade. The Macau Jockey Club became the dumping ground for all those “local jockeys” who had lost their way in Hong Kong along with rides and licenses.
Louis KY Ho, for example, who infamously, actually stood up in his irons one night at Happy Valley Racecourse, and stopped riding odds on favourite How Good, became a trainer in Macau after serving his six month ban for that bizarre bit of horsemanship. Or whatever one chooses to call it.
Hope sprang eternal in Macau where one of the real “fairy tale” stories was that of battling jockey Ricky Choi. For years, Choi rode in Hong Kong as Vickie Choi. One can only guess that the jockey needed an English name, misheard Ricky for Vicky and rode as Vicky Choi during his time in Hong Kong. Sometime late in his career, he learnt about the feminine aspects of his name and had it legally changed from Vicky to Ricky after first consulting with his fung shui man. It had immediate results. Ricky Choi started riding better and actually winning races. Rambo Tse clung to his name and kept pulverizing his rides with brute force in a style that was a combination of his idol Kieron Fallon, Tonto and, well, Rambo. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
Fast forward to today and racing at Shatin on Sunday where new young female apprentice rider Kei Chiong rode her second winner in a week. The race was over the notorious 1000 meter straight sprint course that almost always favours horses drawn the outside stalls, and is the quickest way home. What was impressive about the ride was that despite a riderless horse out in front and causing a problem for a number of senior riders, young Kei didn’t panic. She focused on keeping her ride on a straight line and out of harm’s way and steered Triumphant Jewel first past the post.
It was a polished ride and if Felix Coetzee, the great South African rider who has been recruited by the HKJC to mentor Hong Kong’s apprentices, was watching Kei Chiong navigate her way through the traffic, he would have been a proud man.
Speaking to Felix on the phone later that evening about his Rock Star daughter and her new band, Bob Dylan, and my personal problem of finding most people around me these days as boring as listening to a television bible thumper, I mentioned both the win of Kei Chiong, and how we keep going to the same old label of tagging and dismissing today’s Made In Hong Kong jockeys with a flippant remark about “local jockeys”. It’s as insulting as saying that “Asians will gamble on anything”. No, we don’t.
Felix was taken with our discussion, especially about Kei Chiong. “She’s got something, you know”, he said. “It’s in her eyes. There’s a steely determination. She’s got her feet on the ground and she takes it all in. This is not some prissy girl. I am so happy to see her ride winners and improve”.
Turning to the term “local jockeys” and how it’s used in a dismissive way by some, this brilliant jockey who will always be remembered for his association with the great Silent Witness, didn’t need to hear any further explanations. “You know, man, I’ve been thinking the same thing- just how much Hong Kong-born jockeys have improved in the last two years- and how much they wish to improve as riders. They’re good kids who think extremely differently to their predecessors. Having the HKJC send them overseas during the off-season to get more experience has been of enormous help. Of course, the big hurdle is convincing trainers and owners in these places to put these kids on. But where there’s a will, there’s a way and we haven’t come this far to make a U-turn”.
One couldn’t help but think of Tony Cruz, Hong Kong racing’s favourite son, and a graduate of Hong Kong’s first apprentice scheme who, after achieving everything worth achieving at home, arrived in Europe in the late Eighties as an unknown with a prodigious talent that was shaped by the support he first received from Alan Li, the former Chairman of the HKJC who owned a number of horses in France. This led to a contract with French trainer Patrick Biancone, and which saw him riding for some of the biggest names in racing at that time- The Aga Khan, Daniel Wildenstein, trainers Ian Balding and Henry Cecil, and, dubbed the Cruz Missile, competing against, and beating all the greats- Piggott, Eddery, Carson, Swinburn, Cauthen, Dettori and Brent Thomson who, without any hesitation, says, “At the height of his career, there was no one better than Tony. He was a superstar”.
The Tony Cruz success story cannot be told enough. It’s not only a Hong Kong success story, it’s an international one that’s relevant today. For every Hong Kong rider, their dream is not to be a Moreira, a Whyte or a Purton. It’s to be flying high via Cruz Control. One cannot help but think that the HKJC has a superb USP and product here – The Tony Cruz Story. And what a brilliant story it continues to be- a story that’s not only part of the Club’s past, it’s part of its future as racing slowly starts to make its presence felt in Mainland China without the smoke and mirrors. The Tony Cruz Story is not only inspirational, it’s edutaining. It needs to be told over and over again about what was achieved- and what else can be achieved.
Back at Shatin on Sunday, after the win of Kei Chiong, Derek Leung gave an outstanding display to win aboard Great Spirit and where he outrode some of his more illustrious rivals.
For years, Douglas Whyte pointed out that Leung could be one of the best riders out of Hong Kong since Tony Cruz. It’s taken more time than expected for this potential to be truly realised, but in the last two seasons, we have seen a far more complete rider- and not only utilised by the Chinese trainers.
In all the space devoted to singing the praises of Joao Moreira and Zac Purton and the other Western jockeys- and, often, quite rightfully so- one tends to forget the winning rides of these local riders- riders who are several lengths ahead of their predecessors. Unfortunately, they have inherited this “local” tag and have to work doubly hard to outrun and outgun the ghosts from the past and perception versus reality. Derek KC Leung, Keith ML Yeung and Vincent CY Ho are more than competent jockeys. They might not be world class, but unlike countries where young riders are almost born to ride, in Hong Kong, being a jockey is not the most sought after career. Some, like those mentioned, succeed whereas others never pass Go and don’t collect $200.
My personal belief is that the next generation of Chinese jockeys to emerge- and emerge as real game changers with extraordinary natural riding talents- will be from the provinces outside of Mongolia, and also inside of that horse loving country. It has to happen and the recent win of Mongolian Khan and the investments his owner Lang Ling aka Mr Wolf is quietly making in his home is something to follow very carefully. It could turn out to be one helluva story with Movie Rights written all over it.
With this in mind, we might be seeing the last generation of Chinese jockeys from Hong Kong. And though some have fallen by the wayside, whereas others who showed so much promise early on have detonated their careers by being given too much too quickly and surrounded by enablers, the handful of Hong Kong riding talent here mixing it every meeting with some of the best riding talent in the world should be applauded. Loudly.
It cannot be an easy task to wake up each morning and go hunting for rides while on race day knowing you’re going to be riding against the likes of Moreira or Purton. Though the main support system for these riders remain Chinese trainers like the also creatively named Manfred KL Man, Dennis Yip, Francis Lui, Me Tsui and Danny Shum, all former battling jockeys who have been thrown a new career lifeline, the Hong Kong riders like Ho, Leung and Yeung and the two new ten-pound claimers in Jack Wong and Kei Chiong are and have been receiving huge backing from two other local boys- Caspar Fownes and Tony Cruz.
Fownes has been extraordinarily supportive of his former apprentice Vincent Ho, and will proudly tell you what a “good boy” he is and how he can ride.
Recently, he has gone out of his way to give the new apprentices rides with real winning chances. They haven’t let him down. As he says, “Owners gave me a chance when I was starting out as a trainer. I had to prove myself and needed some good horses in the stable for this to happen. Same with these kids. What are they going to learn by riding no-hopers? Sure, they’ll make mistakes, but we all do. It’s how we learn to improve ourselves”.
Cruz, of course, has always been a huge supporter of Hong Kong riding talent: “I’m a Hong Kong boy, man. I MUST help these kids. I was lucky and at the right place at the right time with influential people giving me my big breaks. We have some of the best jockeys in the world riding here, and, hell, I would be the last guy not to try and get the Hong Kong boys to ride some of my horses with winning chances. And this group of Hong Kong riders and the new girl Kei can ride. They listen, they watch, they learn from their mistakes and successes and they’re great for Hong Kong racing and our racing fans”.
Looking ahead and with Mainland China watching horse racing in its own backyard that is Hong Kong, there will be enormous pride in seeing a Chinese jockey succeed on the world stage- especially a Chinese jockey from the Motherland. And when this happens- and it will- the “local jockey” tag will disappear and a new Made In Mainland China brand will be born.
With nationalistic pride on the board, other doors for racing in Mainland China are certain to open faster than many imagine whereas the riding ranks in Hong Kong, China will undergo another change.
Fascinating stuff and great for the future of the sport and the company in which it will travel.