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The jockeys’ title race held the spotlight in Hong Kong but there was plenty to talk about on the fringes.
Words like ‘epic’ and ‘legendary’ are bandied around all too readily in today’s hype-burdened, click-obsessed world of sports coverage, but the gruelling, never-say-die battle for the 2021-22 Hong Kong jockey championship between Zac Purton and Joao Moreira is worthy of any superlative you care to stick on it.
Two great riders – again, ‘great’ is not a term used casually around here – went at it from the start and kept going right to the end, putting their minds and bodies on the line, race after race. That contest will be the long-remembered defining feature of what was an enthralling campaign but Hong Kong racing seasons are never dull: across the board, they are packed with drama, intrigue, personality, athletic brilliance and a fair number of those ‘what on earth were they thinking?’ kind of moments. All that and more is why those of us who follow the sport inside that mad and marvellous bubble love it so much.
Purton’s comments after he sealed his fifth championship on Sunday were packed with maturity as well as raw insight as to just how tough it was on the two protagonists. Moreira, in the lead-up to the finale, used words like ‘stressed’, ‘destroyed’ and ‘broken in pieces’; Purton said it was ‘energy-sapping,’ that both were ‘empty’ and at the ‘end of their tether.’ Yet still they gave their all, fought through pain to meet their own high personal standards, put on a show for fans, and kept the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s insatiable turnover machine fully fuelled.
That absorbing duel was the main narrative throughout the season but here are a few threads that were overshadowed to some degree by that blindingly apparent highlight.
Let’s get this one out of the way. Hands down, the season’s biggest disappointment was Golden Sixty staying at home. It would take an odd kind of sports fan to have been happy about that call.
Hopes were raised, after two years of Covid, that the brilliant miler would contest the Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo in June. But, no, in line with the trend of recent years (pre-Covid), the connections of a Hong Kong champion opted against.
They are in good company: the Kwok family and John Moore kept Beauty Generation at home and the Wongs were happy not to send Exultant out on any overseas expedition. But it is now seven years since a Hong Kong horse won a Group One overseas – Dan Excel and Aerovelocity in Singapore – and Able Friend that same summer was the last Hong Kong champion racing at his peak to head out.
That is a long time for a jurisdiction of Hong Kong’s standing and speaks as much to the lack of depth at the top in the past few years as it does perhaps to the desire among those who make such calls to keep Hong Kong’s stars racing exclusively in Hong Kong’s races.
The safety-first approach has served owner Stanley Chan well, of course: Francis Lui has trained the Medaglia d’Oro gelding to a record prizemoney haul, six Group Ones and 21 race wins by staying at home. But at age six, after bouncing back from two mid-season defeats – shock reversals at odds of $1 and $1.40 – the time seemed right for an overseas race.
Golden Sixty is a rare talent, no doubt about it, but legacy is important for any champion, and, despite his victories, he has had few chances to get into a genuine international Group One tussle. His reputation is built upon the obviously superb visual performances, mixed with the times he can clock through that trademark dynamite closing surge.
Should Covid restrictions enable, it would be refreshing to see the owners of Hong Kong’s star horses take the lead from their Japanese counterparts and shoot for distant prizes again. For the rising seven-year-old Golden Sixty, though, time is the enemy now.
When Douglas Whyte retired from race riding in 2019 – with 13 premiership titles – he was the last link in a chain of South African jockeys that had a profound impact on the Hong Kong circuit. Felix Coetzee rode the mighty Silent Witness, Bartie Leisher was champion in the late 1980s, Basil Marcus won seven premierships in the 1990s, Robbie Fradd won one too and then came the ‘Durban Demon’ himself.
Whyte has already made the kind of start to his training career that suggests he will be a cross-over – in terms of success – in the Tony Cruz mould. This past season, his third as a trainer, he had a Group 1 breakthrough, posted a solid 46 wins to place sixth in the table and is already marching towards 150 career wins. A future champion trainer, surely?
Emerging in his slipstream comes the rising generation of South African riders in Hong Kong, Lyle Hewitson and Luke Ferraris, both of whom caught the eye when ending the season strongly.
Hewitson in particular formed an opportune association with Whyte, following an apparent rift between the trainer and his former apprentice Jerry Chau. His 27 wins put to bed the ghost of his first stint in the 2019-20 season, when he bagged only three wins from 251 rides across six-months. Hewitson was 22 then and at 24 he is already a three-time South African champ.
Ferraris, still only 20, posted a solid 20 wins from his first Hong Kong campaign, overcoming the departure of his trainer father, David Ferraris – who quit Sha Tin in December – to build profitable late-season support, notably from the important Cruz stable, for whom he rode three winners in the final weeks.
Many a good young jockey has had a false dawn in Hong Kong but Hewitson and Ferraris have shown the potential to suggest they might continue the South African tradition.
David Hayes returned to Sha Tin to much fanfare in the summer of 2020, brought in to fill the gaping void left by John Moore’s forced retirement at age 70. So far, he has not come close to doing that. Hayes’ first season yielded 32 wins and last season he had 36, both with a strike rate in the seven per cent zone.
Hayes made confident predictions of being a champion trainer contender in those optimistic days of August 2020, with the caveat that his first season would be more of a building exercise for season two. “I’ve almost always been top five in Hong Kong,” he said then, adding, “a successful season would be finishing top five, I think. And then from five up, it’s degrees of happiness, anything below five, it’s degrees of unhappiness.”
Using that scale, Hayes must be an unhappy trainer. He just ended his second season in 10th, three wins behind Benno Yung in ninth and with one more on the board than Manfred Man.
Something is not going quite right for the former Lindsay Park man, a two-time Hong Kong champion during his first spell. A shallow dig into the data suggests that his horses struggle to maintain their form after their second start of the campaign. He had 10 first-up winners last season at an 11.6 per cent strike rate and 12 second-up winners at 15.4 per cent; but the rate dropped thereafter, with two winners at their third-up run (3 per cent), two at their fourth (four per cent) and one at their fifth (2.4 per cent).
And feature wins have been like hens’ teeth. Super Wealthy was Hayes’ only Pattern race winner last season, in October’s Group Three National Day Cup, and that must come as a frustration for the multiple champion trainer who in his time has landed the Melbourne Cup, Cox Plate, Caulfield Cup, Golden Slipper, Hong Kong Sprint and Hong Kong Derby.
In recent comments to the press, he emphasised his bad luck, notably the death of Naboo Attack in the Hong Kong Sprint pile-up – the season’s darkest moment. But given his profile and the support he has received – think Shadow Hero’s failed four-year-old campaign in 2021– the signs from season two suggest season three could be make or break.
It might be that Hayes has been caught off-guard by the advancements in the trainer ranks since his first spell at Sha Tin in the 1990s and early 2000s. Preseason in 2020 he said, ‘the routine is very similar to what it was 15 years ago,’ and mentioned that the trainers were little different to those bygone days.
But Frankie Lor’s first premiership triumph – another bright highlight of the 2021-22 season – on the back of Ricky Yiu’s title success in 2020, is evidence that much has changed: the homegrown trainers are now a strong bloc, and, unlike 20 years ago, the best of the locals is a match for any high-profile expatriates.
One big amendment to Hong Kong racing (the 3lb rise in the weights was a welcome one, too) came at the end of the season when the HKJC brought in a raft of convoluted rules under the overarching new reality that trainers can now extend until the age of 75, as long as they meet certain criteria. John Moore benefited when the rule enabled his extension from 65 to 70 – but was told ‘the goalposts’ would not move when 70 loomed – and now John Size and a clutch of 60-something trainers have the chance to train for longer.
Despite that move, the HKJC has invested in much-needed youth, granting Pierre Ng and Jamie Richards licences for the new season. At 38, Ng is the youngest local to be granted a licence since 1986, while the New Zealand champion Richards, at 32, is one of the youngest expats this century to have been granted the opportunity to join the Sha Tin roster.
For this, the HKJC should be applauded. Now it is up to those new boys to face the challenge of the next Hong Kong season. If the superlatives are flying their way, they will have made the start they hoped for. If not, they will learn all too quickly exactly what a tough ride in Hong Kong looks and feels like.
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