By Hans Ebert
Let’s face it, jockeys sending out different signals to their backers as to when to put the money on has been going on since the days of the chariot race in “Ben Hur”…and to varying degrees of success.
There was, for example, the time in Macau around fifteen years ago, where all was discussed the night before the races with the jockey and the owners. The horse was ready, he had drawn the perfect barrier, the trainer was kept in the dark, and 3-4 jockeys had been paid off to play “defence”. But, as the Martell Cordon Bleu flowed and the beauty parade at Club De China was presented to the owners, life to them became one big blur.
On the day of the race, they arrived at the track looking as though they had already celebrated their win along with their horribly dressed Russian conquests- white boots, mini skirts etc. Well, you get the picture. It’s a nasty one. With no one able to remember whether the signal to bet was if the whip was under the jockey’s left arm or the owners’ left, the 50/50 decision was made. It was completely wrong. The horse hadn’t felt right the moment the jockey climbed aboard and he had given the signal not to bet. He had not been on the horse in its last piece of work, the trainer had got to know that he had been cut out of this supposedly best of laid plans and something had been done, or not done to the feed and the runner had run its race. The owners were turfed out of the stable and the jockey never rode again for the trainer.
There was also the time some time ago in Hong Kong when the signal to bet from one of the few French jockeys riding here was that he pull his goggles down while taking his horse around the parade ring.
This worked splendidly until a few more French riders arrived in town and decided that if the wheel ain’t broke, and the goggles aren’t fogged up, why fix it? It didn’t take long for keen punters, and the Chinese racing media always on the hunt for Red October conspiracy theories, to figure out that only the French riders pulled their goggles down in the parade ring- even on a dreary day. When seeing the French Blues Brothers became pretty much public knowledge, it was allez allez and back to the drawing board.C’est la vie.
In more recent years, two well-known Aussie jockeys would fidget with their saddles behind the barriers with their whips in their mouths. Again, it wasn’t difficult to see what was going on. With everyone realising what all this fidgeting action taking place behind the barriers meant, suddenly, their rides that were around 10s, would crash to 4s or under.
Of course, very often, these conspiracy theories are way outta whack. Usually they’re some harmless gesture. Douglas Whyte, for instance, moving a horse away from the others is not a sign to anyone except something between himself and the animal. It’s him simply calming a horse down before entering the barriers.
Giving a horse a good revving up behind the barriers is also not some secret signal that it’s “going”. Every horse is “going”, and a particular Hong Kong quirk is a jockey being asked by a complete stranger- waiter, taxi driver, toilet attendant etc- is if they were “going”. They’d better be “going” or they’d be gonski out of Hong Kong racing.
Signals aside, there are the many superstitions associated with horse racing in Hong Kong. Most of us know the importance of a bai san ceremony to a stable at the start of a new season where gifts, mainly roasted suckling pigs, are offering to the gods for good luck throughout the season. It’s a Chinese ceremony attended by everyone associated with the stable- trainers, jockeys, mafoos, work riders, owners etc. Even the HKJC has its own bai san ceremony just to ensure that turnover doesn’t decline, and that things are nearly fine.
Another superstition known by most happens when jockeys are going through a losing streak. Owners, especially, insist that they be sent to the barbers- forget trendy hair stylists- to have their heads shaved thereby getting rid of the old bad luck and allowing good luck to grow back. It’s like looking after a garden and getting rid of the weeds. Sometimes, of course, the hair doesn’t grow back and jockeys are left looking like Yul Brynner.
Especially during the Nineties, instead of studying a horse’s fitness, many eyes were fixed on which jockeys walked out sporting freshly shorn heads. And maybe it was just one of those things, but it worked. Almost always, a winless jockey would break his duck. Samson, even without his locks, had defeated Delilah and stopped Tom Jones breaking into song.
There are, of course, many personal superstitions to do with horse racing in this city. After a particularly bad day at the track when nothing fired, one Australian trainer who’s since left these shores was known to cut off the tie he was wearing that day into tiny bits. Thank goodness the trainer wasn’t Sean Woods.
As for John Moore, we’re unsure if his penchant for wearing khaki safari suits is a testament to his sartorial splendour or some deep rooted superstition going back to his childhood playing Jungle Jim. But do please note that Jungle Moore, Jim Dandy or any of the unprintable nicknames that he’s been given over the years, has decided to mix it up and enter a more colourful safari world.
For many old school race goers, the list of taboos include the following:
* Other than looking through a form book, do NOT open a book at the races.
* Do NOT bring your new lady friend to the races.
* Unlucky number: 4. In Cantonese, the pronunciation of four is the same as death. Now, that’s a little off-putting.
* Lucky numbers are 8 followed by 6 and 9. Note that the Beijing Olympics were officially opened at 8pm, August 8, 2008.
* Nothing to do with horse racing, but many buildings in Hong Kong don’t have a 13th floor. This is to soothe the nervous and uneasy beating hearts of foreigners, or that charming term, “gweilos”, which means “white ghosts”.
Getting back to horse racing, if you bump into a monk while on your way to the track- what are the odds?- either cross the road or go straight back home, Grasshopper.
Weird as it might seem, if your wife or girlfriend is going through her monthly cycle, do NOT bring her to the races. Apparently, it will jinx everyone and there might be the need to call an exorcist. Or ambulance.
At least in Singapore, and for some jockeys in Hong Kong, it’s bad luck to shake hands before a race. I just refuse to shake hands with plonkers.
At the end of the day, however, if you’re invited to the races and your host and their friends lose, the muttering in Cantonese will start up that you’re bad luck. Or the literal back translation, “That person is very black”. You’re never again invited to the races. You’re not even invited to dinner. Suddenly, you’re Sidney Poitier.
Call it superstition or simply being religious, but Karis Teetan says a short prayer before he goes out to race for everyone to return safe and sound.
One doesn’t know if these are superstitions, but according to Neil Callan, like his approach to life, he likes to “go with the flow”. Don’t buy it. Pulling his sleeves over his elbows is probably a superstition.
When asked if he had any particular quirks, Joao Moreira, bolted up like a hyper, happy enchilada and said, “Yes, I do. Win! Win! Win! There’s nothing like winning!” We know, Joao, we know.
The more weird race day superstitions come from trainer Caspar Fownes who must kiss his wife Alix’s head eight times and bow eight times in front of her before leaving home. When at the track, he retires to the Gents and exactly 6.38pm and does the Moonwalk for eight minutes. Commented one jockey, “It’s a little inconvenient as Cas insists on locking everyone out, but we have learned to respect his ritual”.
And there you have it- some of the more quirky odds and sods to winning or losing at the races in Hong Kong. What works, what doesn’t, who knows. For us, we have one hard and fast rule: Never listen to tips. This way, you only have yourself to blame if you lose, and don’t have the usual Shylocks and Fagins at the door asking for a commission on your winnings.