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COMMENT | Doyle deserves a Hong Kong offer

Hong Kong needs to get back on the front foot in its recruitment of top jockeys who are women.

What does it take for the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) to offer a licence – long-term or short – to an overseas jockey? A championship under the belt would help, for sure; a Group One win on the resume would likely be required. A Classic win? Notable successes at major festivals? Proven winning ability in multiple international jurisdictions? A top three position in a top tier premiership?

The above combined should certainly do it. Champion jockey title aside (there’s time for that yet) Hollie Doyle ticks the boxes. If the Club’s licensing committee does not already have her high on the list for at least a winter contract, it really should have.

Europe’s outstanding female rider is currently second in the British title race and is rolling off another Group One win on her Prix de Diane heroine Nashwa at ‘Glorious Goodwood’ last week. She has also bagged a Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot this season, nailed a famous high-weighted staying handicap victory in the Northumberland Plate on another of her Group One winners, Trueshan, and has notched more than 100 wins in a year for the fourth time in a row.     

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Hollie Doyle scores aboard her great stayer Trueshan at Ascot in 2020. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Hollie Doyle wins the Nassau Stakes on Nashwa at Goodwood. (Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Not only that, she has ridden at Happy Valley the past two Decembers as an invitee to the International Jockeys Championship (IJC), and, in 2021, she became the first woman to ride a winner during that lucrative competition.     

But the HKJC has not licensed a female jockey for other than a one-off gig since Kei Chiong rode her last race in July 2017. In fact, no overseas female jockey has been granted a contract to ride for an extended period since the Eclipse Award winner Emma-Jayne Wilson was licensed in February 2008. Like plenty of her male counterparts before and since, Wilson struggled to gain traction and cut short her contract after only two months. 

The HKJC lauds Hong Kong racing as being world leading, and, in several aspects, it is – just look at its prizemoney, betting turnover and general race day experience – but when it comes to advancing female riders, it is hiding away cautiously in the middle of the pack.

Jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson at Sha Tin trackwork in 2008. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

That pack is tightly grouped, mind you. Although Doyle is high in the standings in Britain, she is the only female jockey in the top 50 there, and, of the seven women currently in the top 100, three are apprentices. This year in Britain, 368 jockeys have ridden and 91 were female, but when you take out amateur riders and the 28 apprentices, only 15 women are full-fledged jockeys.

Japan is making some late but steady headway on that front, while in the US, the highest positioned female in the national standings nowadays is the Prairie Meadows-based rider Kaylee Jordan, 106th on the list, ahead of the veterans Wilson (117th) and Chantal Sutherland (121st).

The current situation in Hong Kong was not always so. In the 1990s Hong Kong was up on the pace, as the HKJC (or Royal HKJC pre-1997) saw a prime opportunity to market its Ladies’ Purse fixture by inviting ‘the ladies’ to compete.

Between 1994 and 1997, in came Julie Krone, Emma O’Gorman, Lisa Cropp, Donna Barton, Kim Clapperton and Alex Greaves to ride at the historic race day. Krone was so good during her first Sha Tin experience in 1994 – two wins and two seconds from her first four rides – that she was invited back two years later.

Jockey Julie Krone atop Colonial Affair in the winner's circle after winning the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown on June 5, 1993. The historic win was the first for a female jockey in a Triple Crown race. (Photo by Getty Images)

That initiative faded out though, as none but Krone in that first year was able to find the support sufficient to win, and afterwards only Barton in 1996 and Greaves in 1997 were able to earn a top-three finish.

Since Wilson left in the spring of 2008, the only overseas female participants through the Hong Kong jockeys’ room have been via the IJC thanks to her fellow Canadian Sutherland, and most recently Doyle.

On the home front, the HKJC has invested in female apprentices passing through its overseas training – Scarlet So rode 54 winners in South Australia up until October last year and the Club has Nichola Yuen and Britney Wong based there currently – but since Willie Kan’s tragic death on March 21, 1999, only Chiong has been deemed proficient enough to earn a place on the Hong Kong roster.

Kan suffered fatal injuries when her mount Happy King clipped heels during a 1400-metre race at Sha Tin. Her shattering death affected Hong Kong racing deeply, to the extent that it became common speculation among participants that the HKJC was perhaps fearful about licensing another female rider. That changed when Chiong was given her opportunity almost 15 years later but her high-profile hometown career was over inside two years after shooting high then descending rapidly.

Kei Chiong rides Weekend Beauty to victory at Sha Tin in 2017. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

It should be stated that in an ideal world, whether a jockey is a man or a woman would be neither here nor there. Referring to a jockey as ‘female’, ‘woman’ or ‘Ms’ should be unnecessary and it rankles somewhat that the differentiation still persists. But the sport, like the world at large, is not where it should be yet.

Doyle is not the only woman the HKJC should be looking at either: Jamie Kah is an elite talent in Melbourne who is more than qualified to ride in Hong Kong. And, intriguingly, New Zealand’s past champion Danielle Johnson has recently made the move to the city with her fiancé, the newly-licensed Sha Tin trainer Jamie Richards. It will be interesting to see whether or not Johnson applies for a jockeys’ licence.  

Champion jockey Danielle Johnson has relocated to Hong Kong. (Photo by Getty Images)

But Doyle, whose G1 Nassau Stakes win at Goodwood on Thursday was complemented by a power-packed drive to edge out William Buick and Silvestre de Sousa in a photo finish to a seven-furlong handicap, has to be one of the names – male or female – at the very top of the HKJC’s considerations.

She is 25, her career is on the up, the hunger is evident, the ability is undeniable; she has strength, tactical nous and a willing attitude; she can ride at 115lb, no problem, and she is already familiar to the Hong Kong fans. And, if Doyle’s husband Tom Marquand needs a licence to make the move more appealing to her, well, he’s pretty well qualified, too.

Either way, it’s time again for the HKJC to licence a woman with the ability to have a crack and Doyle fits the bill. 

HONG KONG RACING

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