By Hans Ebert
If only his family enjoyed the hectic Hong Kong lifestyle more, it would be great to have Tim Clark aka The Hobbit back riding here. There’s no one riding winners more regularly in Sydney right now than The Hobbit. But the odds of him returning for even a three month stint are as slim as a group hug between trainer Sean Woods and the Licensing Board of the HKJC. Yes, it really is that slim.
Still, time waits for no one and the new Hong Kong racing season is already less than a month away- a season that promises to be one of much interest and change, on and off the track.
Apart from Joao Moreira and Zac Purton, always the most in-demand riders by trainers and owners, and one must never forget the influence many owners’ friends have over their choice of stable, rider and even the distance a horse should tackle- talk about committee decisions- this season might just see a more level playing field.
Other jockeys certain to be in demand will be Matthew Poon, apprentice Dylan Mo- at least while his ten-pound claim is still intact- Nash Rawiller, and as one saw towards the backend of last season, a rejuvenated Brett Prebble.
Of those mentioned, the most interesting to watch will be The Poon Train aka Matthew Poon, who roared into the Lion City during the off-season and came away a runaway winner with a brace of choo choo winners and offers to stay on.
But trains always run on time, and the extremely popular Poon Train will certainly not be lacking race fitness come September 3 at Sha Tin. With his never-say-die attitude in the saddle, it would be no surprise one day to see the effusive young rider jump off his horse and carry it over the finish line- such is his desire to win.
Whatever he might lack in style and elegance, The Poon Train makes up for by that unbridled focus to arrive at the station first and ahead of schedule. One can’t wait to see some tight finishes between The Poon Train and the strong wok stirring riding style of Nash “Fried Rice” Rawiller. Now, THAT’s entertainment!
After missing most of last season after a terrible fall, the quiet, unassuming Gnasher will be eager to get those chopsticks working overtime and feed his hunger for winners. One wishes him only the best as he’s stuck it out here when some in the land Down Under claimed that after a rash of suspensions, The Gnasher, a heavyweight rider, wouldn’t last the distance. If he lasted riding for Lady GaiGai, he could survive anything: “Tell them it’s the most exciting, wonderful and gorgeous horse you’ve ever ridden, Nash! Dazzle them with bullshit!”
With strong family support and he himself realising that the god person only helps those who help themselves, the former champion Australian jockey worked on mending his errant ways.
Along with son Campbell by his side, he also went out of his way to market himself more aggressively, especially to many of the Chinese trainers- and for whom he consistently delivered. Plus that all-important and hugely influential Chinese racing media warmed to him like pot stickers to congee.
Gawd knows that a lean patch in Hong Kong for a jockey or a trainer can result in the immediate loss of rides and horses.
Loyalty? What loyalty? There’s always that thing called “face” at stake. Lose “face”, lose horse. Probably also lose wife and mistress.
There’s also what’s called two-faced that goes hand in hand with petty politics and the flatulent art of The Bluff, a sad trait picked up by a few expats in racing here, and extremely transparent to those with that observant third eye. Insecurity is a bitch.
Onto more positive things: Brett Prebble. This Melbourne Cup winning jockey, and once a vital part of the great Lloyd Williams team, especially when targeting the race that stops a nation, seems to have shaken off whatever was holding him back, reinvented himself, and by the end of last season, was riding as well- and in some instances better- than anyone. He’s also capable of making faces like this.
Brett Prebble is still building his support system, but already having John Size in his corner has been of considerable help. As they say, one is judged by the company you keep. Champion trainer John Size is very good company for Prebble as was riding a very rare winner for Tony Cruz aka The Putha Man towards the backend of the season. This might just be the start of a budding bromance between trainer and jockey though the legendary Putha Man is getting more and more difficult to understand. Must be from communicating with aliens through that Blue Tooth earpiece now permanently stuck to the side of his head.
Meanwhile, Prebble’s intention to ride at 117 pounds with no need to carry any extra weight is a clear signal that he means business and is ready to take on all comers. Even an oncoming choo choo train. The will to win is back. So are those winning vogue vogue poses. He’s found his mojo again.
Breathing down the necks of these aforementioned riders will be Sam Clipperton, Neil Callan, Douglas Whyte, Derek Leung, Chad Schofield, and Karis Teetan. If there was any reason to back one of these riders to have a watershed season, it would be the Mauritian Magician.
His very successful off season stint in Japan saw Karis Teetan make the most of his time there. He rode winners and made some very useful contacts who might make a very deep impact on his future- owners like Japan’s powerful Yoshida horse racing dynasty.
In Hong Kong, the likeable Teetan, and the James Brown of racing on the dance floor, has proven that his still raw talent mixed with youthful exuberance only needs a few tweaks before he’s recognised as a world class jockey. This might just be the season where everything comes together for him.
Of course, the unknown factor is how the new partnership between the popular Tommy Berry and John Moore blossoms. Moore is a very good trainer with a stable full of Group 1 stars, but his relationships over the decades with his retained stable jockeys have not exactly been, well, stable- there was Noel Barker, Johnny Marshall, Brian York, and Darren Beadman. Only time will tell if the Berry Moore brand will stick.
What this new partnership has done of course is drastically reduce the number of stable elect rides going the way of especially Joao Moreira. The Magic Man has made no secret that this won’t be another season where he continues where he left off by breaking his own library of records. Who knows, but how successful this season turns out could determine his future career plans. Joao Moreira is not only a brilliantly gifted horseman, he’s a family man, an astute businessman and very savvy at handling the media. He’s no fool. He knows his worth and is a master of street smarts learnt from his formative years in his home town of São Paulo.
One really can’t see Joao Moreira playing second Chiquita banana to anyone- unless he wants to for reasons known only to him. But, one season at a time. If Moreira can win another Jockey Premiership even without major support from the Moore yard, it will only prove that here’s an exceptional riding talent who was born to ride. And ride to win. But don’t think Zac Purton is going to open the door that easily and say, Please, you first.
The Zac Attack ended the season by being the best rider in Hong Kong. He just was. And at least as this writer is concerned, despite his army of fawning Twitter trolls, he’s still to really earn his proper dues.The upcoming season is one of his best chances of winning back the Jockeys Premiership.
As the season continues, sure, there’ll be HKIR week, the various Group races, Happy Wednesday and other highlights of the racing calendar. But with Hong Kong being home, apart from hitting it big by winning a Six Up or/and Triple Trio jackpot, one just knows that there’ll always be the obligatory horse opera of politics that takes place away from the public eye- like anywhere else- but played for much bigger stakes.
It’s sometimes like a goofy version of Game Of Thrones meets Keeping Up With The Kardashians starring an often weird cast of characters- riders, trainers, owners, and the odd, sometimes very odd, racing executive plucked from obscurity and given one of those wonderful expat packages with all the pukka perks that make them puffy fish in a mackerel fish bowl. If the HKJC, all these goings on would make for groundbreaking content: horse racing’s first ongoing fly on the wall reality series. Right, Kim?
In the meantime, roll on September 3 with all the trimmings and all eyes on The Magic Man, The Poon Train, The Zac Attack, The Lord Of The Rings Of The Brown And Green Lamps lighting up the totalisator board, the arrival and baptism of fire for new trainer Michael Freedman, the continuing adventures of the enigmatic Pakistan Star, watching out for Berry Berry Moore and rolling in the deep and being in the thick of it all.
It might not be The Everest, but it’s a far more sustained high with peaks and valleys and horse racing providing the best entertainment in town.