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A deep family tradition in Hong Kong racing gives the man who rode Silent Witness in his early trackwork a keen appreciation of the Hong Kong Derby’s unique status.
Chris So Wai-yin is conscious of his heritage as he prepares Super Sunny Sing for the Hong Kong Derby. He well knows that the Derby is the race that makes the Hong Kong racing scene tick; the race that every trainer wants on their resume; that every owner paying their hefty Club membership fees and weighty training bills wants their friends and acquaintances to know they have won.
The Hong Kong International Races might be the polished Group 1 showcase to the world but for those who live and breathe Hong Kong racing week after week, the Derby is the prestige race. It is a contest dating back to 1873 when ‘China ponies’ were the athletes of choice around Happy Valley, a century before thoroughbreds first put hooves to Sha Tin racecourse’s newly-laid man made land.
“It’s an honour just to have a runner,” the trainer tells Asian Racing Report ahead of his Classic Cup hero Super Sunny Sing’s attempt at the feature, and he means those words. Having spent his formative years living in Happy Valley, the son of a jockey, he understands the history.
So is at least the third generation of his family involved directly in the city’s horse racing. Both of his grandfathers owned horses going back to the 1950s and his father, Peter So Kwok-yan, was one of the most prominent jockeys of the 1960s, his career straddling the shift from amateur to professional.
“My dad was a jockey from something like 1963 to the mid-1970s, he was an amateur-turned-professional when the racing went professional in the early 1970s,” So says.
“He rode for the Li family – Cornel Li and Alan Li, that family – and the Cummings family; he rode with Gary Moore, John Moore, Pat Eddery, all those guys. After he retired, he became a commercial TV racing commentator.”
The So family lived on the high side of Happy Valley, up the long road from the race track that rises steeply up Blue Pool Road to Tai Hang Road.
“We lived just across from Marymount School on Tai Hang Road; in those amateur days, the jockeys were all rich people who wanted to ride,” he laughs. “I didn’t spend any time around the horses because I was a kid but I was interested in horses and I wanted to be a jockey.
“But my father said, ‘You have no chance,’” he laughs again. “For a long time, the Jockey Club wanted kids to be 15 or 16 years-old, five feet or under, weighing less than 100 pounds. I’m not big but I couldn’t make that so he was realistic and said, ‘Don’t dream, you’ll never make it.’”
So’s route from horse mad Happy Valley kid to Sha Tin racehorse trainer took a long detour when his parents decided to emigrate to Canada when he was 19. Unable to get work around the Woodbine backstretch, he found a job instead at E. P. Taylor’s Windfields Farm, once the home of the great stallion Northern Dancer.
“Northern Dancer’s son Vice Regent was the stallion there when I arrived. I worked there for five years and I learnt a lot, breaking yearlings, working with the stallion, preparing yearlings for the sales at Keeneland,” he recalls.
But then a horse So was riding flipped over and he was left with a broken knee. He returned to Hong Kong for a visit and dropped in at Sha Tin.
“I met (trainer) Ricky Yiu and he tried to convince me to get a job as a riding boy, so a year later I came back,” he says. “It was in March 1997 when I started working for the Jockey Club; I worked for Bruce Hutchison for two or three months on probation.”
His first full role was as a work rider for David Hayes; after two years he moved to Tony Cruz, again as a work rider.
“I rode a lot of good horses at Tony’s, like Silent Witness, Bullish Luck and the Derby winner, Lucky Owners. Silent Witness, when I rode him, wow, what a champion! We knew straight away, his first fast work, that he was a Class 1 horse but of course he was even better than that.
“But Lucky Owners as well, the first time he did pace work in Hong Kong, I rode him and Tony told me to go 23 or 24 seconds or something; when I came back, Tony says, ‘Hey, I told you to go 23-24, why did you go 21?’ and I said ‘If he was going 21, he must be a Class 1 horse.’ So the next time, he put Felix (Coetzee) on and it was the same, 21 seconds.”
So laughs again: his geniality makes him one of the most personable of Hong Kong’s trainers, blessed with a natural down-to-earth friendliness.
After five years with Cruz, he was promoted to assistant trainer and moved to Caspar Fownes’ stable where he would stay for 10 years, until 2013 when he was granted his own licence to train.
The trappings of being a Hong Kong trainer, where a Class 5 race is worth HK$810,000 (US$103,000), are not outwardly obvious in So, but he does have a penchant for a cool vintage car. For a number of years, his yellow Toyota Celica GT was conspicuous outside his Sha Tin racecourse apartment block. Nowadays he has a 1986 Toyota AE86 in homage to a well-known Hong Kong action movie, Initial D, adapted from an original Japanese manga series of the same title.
“I like vintage cars, I just enjoy them,” he says. “The one I have, the AE86, it’s like the car from the movie, the black and white car. I sold the Toyota Celica to one of David Hayes’ work riders.”
But the horsepower that has his attention most all is his stable star Super Sunny Sing, a four-year-old that heads into the Derby off a four-win streak, including that Classic Cup success.
“Everybody thinks he has a good chance to win but I’m just happy to have a horse that is one of the favourites and we will try to do our best,” he says.
He adds that being a local Hong Konger with a family tradition in the sport makes having a Derby contender particularly special. What is more, he is sharing that heritage with the next generation.
“My daughter Zoe has been racing a couple of times this year now that it’s open for family and the public,” he says. “She’s 11 years old and it’s more interesting for her now, like if I get a win, she can join the picture and it means something: she’s starting to enjoy it.”
Perhaps that next picture will be with the Derby trophy; and just maybe that in turn will inspire a fourth generation of the So family to carry on the tradition as owner, jockey or trainer.
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