By Hans Ebert
When time for the Longines Hong Kong International Races rolls around again- and gawd knows, time flies- there will be another reason for taking in The Greatest Show On Turf: Kei Chiong.
The Kei Chiong success story has happened almost faster than “Hiddleswift”, the overnight and very public displays of canoodling for each other between Actor Tom Hiddlestone and serial love-bingeing singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. “Hiddleswift”. Fiddlesticks. Same same.
The difference between these two stories is that one is all about substance and discipline and determination and making something out of, where a year ago, existed nothing. The other has to do with the world’s preoccupation and obsession with the superficial love lives of celebrities.
In what has been an extraordinary few months, Kei Chiong has gone from being an average ten-pound claiming apprentice with the novelty factor of being the first female to be granted a riding license in Hong Kong in fifteen years, who many thought would not make the grade, to single-handedly- and some important background help- bringing Girl Power to racing- and not only Hong Kong racing. She’s Kung Fu Spice.
In this social media-driven world, her rapid ascent and improvement as a rider taking on some of the best in the world, twice a week- and beating them with increasing frequency- has not gone unnoticed. “KK” is becoming an international phenomenon, and Longines might be looking at its first horse racing ambassador, a Chinese racing personality at that, with the appeal to actually transcend the often insular world of horse racing.
Voted The Most Popular Jockey in Hong Kong of last season by the public, where she beat out the phenomenon that is Joao Moreira aka The Magic Man for the title through the voting power of Facebook, and the recipient of the inaugural Tony Cruz Award for being the most successful local rider, Kei Chiong is a marketer’s dream. She’s also a USP for the HKJC that not only adds another level of interest in December’s HKIR Week, but is also a terrific opportunity to attract the current non-racing section of the public to the sport. And this has started to happen.
While we wish Michelle Payne a speedy recovery from a horrific injury, and think back to last year when she became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, one cannot help but feel that those promoting and marketing the sport in Australia missed a huge opportunity.
This lost opportunity was not working with the history-making jockey to create an ongoing campaign to expand the sport’s customer base- to make it younger, to take it from being described as “eye candy” by oldsters trying desperately hard to be hipsters, and make horse racing a likeable sport, especially through social media, amongst females of all ages- females who still view it as something of a global Ye Olde Boys Club where many gather to make rhubarb rhubarb noises. That’s not a pleasant picture.
Getting to where she is today has not exactly been a stroll in the park for the 23-year-old Kei Chiong, who grew up in the concrete jungle that is Tsuen Wan, a tough area of Hong Kong made up of housing estates, and where many face an uncertain future.
It’s taken time and patience and some dedicated mentoring, both by Amy Chan, Headmistress of the HKJC’s Apprentice Jockey School, and the great South African horseman Felix Coetzee to turn her into an “overnight sensation”. Let’s also recognise the efforts of New Zealand trainer Allan Sharrock for whom Kei Chiong rode for six months before returning to Hong Kong. The highly respected Sharrock gave her the grounding, discipline, and self-belief needed.
As for this “overnight sensation” label, this happened not that long ago, and when KK was sidelined for a few months through an injury to two of her fingers. As Coetzee explained, “After the races, a group of us sit down with Kei and (fellow apprentice) Jack Wong, and go through videos of their rides- what they’re doing well, and where there should be improvement”. It was at one of these internal clinics and classes that one weapon missing in her artillery became clear: Kei Chiong rarely used her left hand when riding. It was a simple Eureka moment, but it has made a world of difference between winning and losing. “While still recovering from her injury, we made Kei go everywhere with that whip in her left hand, and then really pushed her when exercising on the wooden and mechanical exercise horse”.
The new, improved Kei Chiong returned to race riding a different rider- more confident, stronger, and an expert at playing catch me if you can, something that was a hallmark of Coetzee’s front-running riding style, and seen to great effect on horses like Egyptian Ra, picture below, and, when it was required, the mighty Silent Witness.
Coetzee has been a great supporter of and mentor for Kei Chiong ever since being employed by the HKJC to improve the quality of local riding talent. During those early days and when the jury was still out as to whether Chiong would graduate from simply being labeled “the only female to be granted a riding license in Hong Kong in fifteen years”, it was Coetzee who kept the faith. “She takes it all in. Don’t you worry about her,” he assured her doubters at the time. “There’s something in her eyes- a steely determination to succeed by learning- and never stopping to learn”. Perhaps, but who hit the ground running first was fellow apprentice Jack Wong. That was then.
Experienced horsemen like Felix Coetzee and Tony Cruz know only too well about apprentices’ allowances and the ability to lead in a race. As Cruz recently remarked, and which Coetzee echoes, is now seeing Kei Chiong evolve into a more tactical rider, who can also win races by coming off the pace. It was a motivational challenge handed down by Cruz last weekend- this need to be a truly versatile rider and not a one trick pony. Challenge accepted by Kei Chiong.
“Kei has everything going for her,” says one senior rider. “The improvement she has shown since returning from her accident, and how easily she adapted to riding the tight and challenging Happy Valley track is something I have seldom seen before. I have followed her in races, and when she’s out there in front, she’s in total control. Just being able to lead in a race is easy. Timing her rides to perfection isn’t. Working with Felix Coetzee, who. we would half-joke, had a stopwatch in his head giving him details of every sectional when he was riding- something that made him such an incredible judge of pace-has no doubt rubbed off on Kei.
“She’s also become much stronger in a finish. Go back and watch her beat a rider as strong as Zac Purton, something she did aboard Multimax at the last race meeting. Weight aside, that was a damn determined win, and it’s winning rides like this that’s making her as much in demand as Joao Moreira by stables and owners. Zac Purton is no longer the main competition to the Magic Man. It’s Kei Chiong. And after her off-season stint in Adelaide with (trainer) Phillip Stokes, she’ll return an even more polished rider with youth on her side. Her success is great for local racing fans who’ve been waiting for a local hero for decades.”
Timing is everything, and having ridden 37 winners, placing her sixth in last season’s Jockey Premiership, and above even the legend that is Douglas Whyte, Kei Chiong has finished part one of her journey.
On September 3 with the start of the new racing season, the next part of the journey continues. And if going according to the script, it points to more success. Then there’s her appearance during Longines HKIR Week in December. This is something visitors to The World Turf Championships are already gearing up for along with the marquee value equine and riding talent that will be on show.
Will a little Chinese girl- a spunky little thing who has proven her doubters wrong, accepted challenges, and risen to the occasion- make her mark on the world stage in December? This is the same stage where she had a career-changing fall last year in front of 85,000 racing fans when the horse she was riding clipped heels. At that time, she had ridden only two winners in three months.
With everything she’s changed around since then, this gives the HKIR yet another USP, and another star attraction to its cavalcade of names- a name that few had heard of this time last year. This is what makes Kei Chiong’s journey through her Field Of Dreams all the more amazing- and all the more inspiring to a new generation of aspiring local female jockeys who finally have a genuine role model.