By Hans Ebert
Something quite remarkable happened on Happy Wednesday. Actually it’s been happening since the start of the season. From the Hong Kong jockey’s premiership looking like it was going to be a two horse race, even during these early days, it looks like being a four horse race with every chance that by the end of the races today, it could even be a six horse race. Except the unexpected this season.
Sure, the new racing season started with Joao Moreira and Zac Purton looking to have what appeared to be the pick of the rides, but one wonders for how much longer owners, not trainers, will allow this “trend” to carry on. It’s nothing against these two world class jockeys, but too many Hong Kong not only being fickle, but actually believing they can train their horses better than their trainers and wanting odds. Joao Moreira riding any horse means getting unders. And sometimes even going unders because even magic men can’t make the impossible happen.
After the third race meeting and 28 races having been run, fifteen of these winners had been won by Joao Moreira and Karis Teetan. By the end of play on Happy Wednesday and 36 races having been run, nineteen and a half of those wins have gone to a combination of The Magic Man, the Mauritian Magician and The Poon Train.
Not really that surprisingly, Joao Moreira came up empty handed on Happy Wednesday. He simply didn’t have the horsepower to give him even one solid winning chance at the mid-week meeting.
Most of us should know by now that these Happy Wednesday meetings are where Joao Moreira almost chills out and goes around on a number of very average conveyances while probably wishing he was up onstage at the Beer Garden with his brothers from Colombia and Brazil in Carnivale. Why over exert oneself? There’s always the weekend and Sha Tin where he can go poof and turn on another magic show.
After two Happy Wednesdays and 16 rides, Joao Moreira has ridden one winner. Like many of us, he’s probably enjoying watching his Mauritian amigo Karis Teetan banging in winner after winner by flying down the outside with wings on the feet of most of his rides whereas there’s now The Poon Train- young local rider Matthew Poon, who became a punter’s favourite during his time serving his apprenticeship in Adelaide by putting in the extra work and riding a truckload of winners mainly for well respected trainer Richard Jolly before returning to Hong Kong.
As some of us who followed the adventures of The Poon Train in the land down under mentioned to those within earshot in Hong Kong, Matthew Poon should not be seen as another claiming apprentice trying to find his feet through trial and error. He’s not a Kei Chiong.
Sure, he’s also not exactly the most elegant jockey to ever sit on a horse, but his never say die attitude gets them first past the post. That’s what matters. Sitting pretty can often produce some ugly results. And with legendary South African jockey Felix Coetzee, below with Kei Chiong, employed by the HKJC to mentor the city’s local riders and iron out any problems that might be holding them back, Matthew Poon is quickly developing into the finished article.
Riding four winners on Happy Wednesday and taking out the Jockey Challenge against some of the most experienced riders in the world who know all about the idiosyncratic city track showed a young rider with not only that will to win, but actually doing his best to take on the best and beat them.
His extremely smart, tactical ride to win the sixth race on the Danny Shum-trained 17 to 1 shot Inventor showed a rider who, unlike many other local apprentices we have seen over the years, doesn’t just drive his horse to the front, hold on for dear life and hope for the best. He actually thinks and judges the pace of a race, something that was a trademark of Coetzee when he was riding.
Felix Coetzee is one of the hardest task masters there is- a perfectionist- and despite knowing that Matthew Poon is still a work in progress, he must have been impressed when his student took that race by the scruff of its neck, and made a sudden winning move which took many of the senior riders by surprise. Who WAS that masked man, Tonto?
Where it’s now going to become interesting is, like many jumping on any successful bandwagon, owners asking- and telling- their trainers that they want to board and be part of this runaway Poon Train.
As we should all know by now, local owners, especially those racing horses in the lower grades, are notoriously fickle and dedicated followers of success and gossip. And right now, Matthew Poon is the Flavour Of The Month. He’s right up there with Joao Moreira when it comes to popularity and being in demand. With his seven pound claim, he might even be in more demand than the likeable and dominating Brazilian.
Breathing down their necks is the popular Karis Teetan. And here, one must understand what is discussed about horse racing in Cantonese and on Chinese social media. This is where the Chinese racing media goes to in order to understand the mood of the local racing fans. Often one also forgets just how important “going Chinese” is. How many, for instance, realise that Joao Moreira might not be on Twitter, but has a Chinese Facebook page?
We’ve always said that The Magic Man is very savvy when it comes to marketing himself, and it really wouldn’t surprise to know that he and Karis Teetan, who has a sizeable following on Instagram, are also looking after their brands with the Japanese market in mind. The Mauritian Magician’s short off-season stint in Japan where he rode five winners has more than help open the door for him in that racing jurisdiction.
The Karismatic one just loves to win. He returned to Hong Kong to take out the pre-season Jockey Sprint. Speedy Gonzales, anyone?
All this should make many riders in Hong Kong realise that they might need to find a few new ways of marketing themselves and developing a different business model.
A couple of years ago, Nash Rawiller decided that he needed to show local trainers- and their owners- that he was available and totally committed to those who supported him. He also needed to prove to the Chinese racing media that he was much more than the punchline in a wok stirring fried rice joke. It’s worked well for him. So far this season, The Gnasher might have only one winner on the board, but that’s one more than a number of other senior expatriate jockeys.
For example, despite being champion Hong Kong jockey for thirteen successive seasons, just look at the limited number of rides Douglas Whyte has been offered so far this season- and mainly from one trainer- his longtime friend Tony Cruz. People have short memories. Brett Prebble, Olivier Delouze, Neil Callan and local riders Keith Yeung, Alvin Ng, and Matthew Chadwick are still to get off the mark. Even if they’re given rides, do these have winning chances? Not everyone can be like local rider Eddy Lai, who got off the mark on Wednesday by winning on rank outsider Young Empire.
Singer-songwriter Donovan and others have written about The Season Of The Witch. In Hong Kong, this just might turn out to be The Season Of The Bitch. There’s been at least one trainer questioning a leading jockey’s “loyalty” and “attitude” whereas those riders who will have to play second fiddle are looking at ways to create a more level playing field by seeing if it might help if they had, for example, HKJC-employed agents/managers.
One really can’t see this happening. The idea has more holes in it than a xxxxx of cheese and could create an even greater divide and a fresh new can of worms.
After the quartet of winners by The Poon Train, the current success rate of Karis Teetan and with Tommy Berry patiently waiting in the wings for John Moore to unleash his latest army of Group 1 horsepower, those seasons where there have always been 1-2 key players just might be coming to an end.
The riding ranks seem to be opening up and becoming more competitive and where everyone will have to put their heads down and focus on making things work for themselves. It’s every man for themselves. And that’s a good thing. It separates the men from the boys.
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