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OPINION: HKJC’s jockey recruitment challenge

More meetings means more jockeys, but where will they come from? David Morgan discusses the challenge the Hong Kong Jockey Club faces trying to recruit jockeys.

Pierre Ng is a welcome and worthy addition to the Hong Kong trainers’ roster but it was a quiet day on the jockeys’ front after the HKJC licensing committee recently released its decisions ahead of the 2022/23 season.

Angus Chung has done the work in South Australia to earn his place as the much-needed 10lb claimer on the scene. But the fact that he could be the only new jockey weighing out at Sha Tin on the opening day of the 2022/23 season raises the question of how the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s expectations around rider recruitment will hold up in the coming years of planned programme expansion, post-COVID.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s chief executive officer Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges revealed in a local television interview that from April 2026, Conghua racecourse, across the border in Guangzhou, will stage four to eight race days extra to the 88 race meetings already split between Happy Valley and Sha Tin (note: despite some confusion in some Chinese language media, the interview did not mention betting on these races and the CEO maintains a consistent line of the need to stick to government guidelines).

Even with that addition to the Hong Kong programme being four years away, the 23 jockeys on the roster looks a handful light. More so when the licensing committee ‘advised’ Alex Lai and Victor Wong that they had both better up their game if they are to retain their licences beyond this season. Lai has notched only one win this campaign and took a month-long leave of absence earlier this year, while Wong has two wins on the board.

Then there is Jack Wong, winless up to January 1 and on the injury list since, having won only three races in 2020-21.

Circumstances, perhaps, have afforded last chances that in normal times would not have been offered. It is no secret that the HKJC has faced difficulties in the past two years, not only in the recruiting of preferred ‘big name’ candidates but also in retaining those jockeys they have managed to bring in.

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Joao Moreira, aboard Waikuku, edges out Zac Purton in the Stewards Cup. (Photo by HKJC)

The roster has seen more outs than ins since early 2021 when the heavyweight signing Christophe Soumillon – a man well-accustomed to Hong Kong racing – expressed dissatisfaction at his short winter stint in the city, which featured a COVID positive and a period in quarantine followed by a lack of quality rides.

Tony Piccone then bailed in November 2021, followed a month later by Chad Schofield. On December 3, Silvestre de Sousa was granted a contract from February 1 until the end of the season but within 17 days he had changed his mind in favour of a spell in Saudi Arabia.

The Club worked quickly to find a Band Aid fix for those departures when Luke Currie and Daniel Moor arrived on short notice in early January. Currie’s unfortunate race fall ruled him out for a spell, but he has made good progress since with seven winners. He is on the list of jockeys for next season. 

One issue is the overwhelming dominance of Zac Purton and Joao Moreira. While they provide a fascinating two-man competition – one in three of all winners have fallen to the pair this season – and fuel turnover, the ‘big two’ have for some time been a stumbling block to recruiting the world’s star riders on anything more than a short-term licence. Then there is the considerable factor of the isolation caused by COVID-19 travel restrictions and the HKJC’s own stringent measures, which were put in place to keep racing going. 

Hong Kong might have high prize money but it would seem the above factors are outweighing that lure, at least among the world’s top jockeys. Australian purses are high, too, as are Japan’s and the Gulf nations, with Saudi Arabia being the new ‘moneybags’ They offer European-based jockeys lucrative alternatives to Hong Kong but without the same COVID challenges.

However Moor withdrew his licence on March 23 citing the difficulties of being away from family during a lockdown. Then, in April, Blake Shinn made it known that he would leave at the season’s end due to ‘mental stresses’.

Australia is often the go-to for the HKJC, given the strength in depth there and the similarities in the racing styles and systems. Top Europeans have been unwilling to commit long-term but Alexis Badel and Neil Callan in recent times have shown that there is worthwhile talent outside the star names, and Harry Bentley is evidence that capable, hungry riders can be secured; South Africa only has so much cream to skim and North Americans barely register on the radar.

Frenchman Alexis Badel has made an impression in Hong Kong (Photo: HKJC).

Meanwhile, Japanese jockeys have ridden successfully full-time in Macau, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and North America, yet none have been given a chance on even a short-term deal. 

Then there is South America. The Club already has three Brazilians on its books but the next generation of eager South American riders must surely be keen to break out too.

Must they always have to prove themselves elsewhere before they get an HKJC gig? Moreira, already a proven champion in South America, rode for four phenomenal years in Singapore before the HKJC went and got his signature. Perhaps the HKJC could look at drawing the best emerging jockeys from there directly.

There is talent in the current Hong Kong line-up, no doubt, and good potential among it. But the landscape has changed. 

The heydays of Douglas Whyte, Gerald Mosse, Brett Prebble, Olivier Doleuze, Weichong Marwing, Darren Beadman and a rising Purton, featuring on a 25-strong roster, complemented by the likes of Ryan Moore, Hugh Bowman and Soumillon flying in for winter contracts, seem a long time ago.

The current top six jockeys in the championship are an eclectic mix of a Brazilian, an Australian, a Mauritian, a Frenchman and two Hong Kongers. Hong Kong racing is at its best when there is a diverse range of characters, like this, but maybe now is the time to look at a less obvious approach.

Hong Kong racing’s great ambition has been to be the centre of the racing world and it has indeed been lifted into a new realm in terms of horse performance, professionalism and prize money this century. The challenge now though is for the HKJC to ensure it upholds that reputation among the world’s best jockeys and it might take an open mind from club recruiters to do that.

HONG KONG RACING

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