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With Hong Kong seemingly on the verge of relaxing Covid restrictions, the HKJC must do all it can to bring in the world's best riders.
Hong Kong racing is about to start playing catch-up; and it needs to. After more than two and a half years of government-led Covid-19 quarantine restrictions, the jurisdiction for so long lauded as a world leader has lost its position as the most desired short-term go-to for star jockeys from Australia and Europe.
Instead, those big names with ambitions overseas, deterred in large part by the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) own strict pandemic quarantine requirements, have in the past year looked beyond Hong Kong’s lucrative spoils to the high returns available on the Japan Racing Association (JRA) circuit. Japan is now the prime destination.
Melbourne big-hitter Damian Lane enjoyed a lucrative spring season there this year and the JRA’s recently revealed all-star cast of riders to have applied for and been offered licences for the coming autumn-winter season is exactly the calibre of jockey that would have been heading to Hong Kong in years gone by: Ryan Moore, Christophe Soumillon, Hollie Doyle, Tom Marquand, Bauyrzhan Murzabayev and the rising star David Egan.
But comments by HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges in the local press this week indicated that Hong Kong is about to get back in the game. With word doing the rounds in the city that the government may roll back its quarantine requirements, the line from Engelbrecht-Bresges was that if it does happen, the HKJC is going to pull out the stops to bring in top riders, and that there has been communication with a number of those in recent weeks, to follow the latest arrival, Silvestre de Sousa.
Importantly, Engelbrecht-Bresges also indicated that Hong Kong-based jockeys would be allowed to fly out to take rides in major races offshore. This had not been possible for most of the period since Covid took a grip in the first quarter of 2020 but has been back on the table in recent months; in reality, it was not encouraged for a few seasons before the Covid nightmare began either.
The CEO talking of ‘flexibility’ and being ‘favourable’ ‘in principle’ to Hong Kong-based riders flying overseas for races like the Melbourne Cup is a positive shift from the HKJC’s pre-Covid attitude.
Through the previous decade jockeys had been allowed to travel, and, after their Melbourne Cup wins, both Gerald Mosse in 2010 and Brett Prebble in 2012 were even allowed to stay on in Australia rather than fly straight back to Hong Kong for the next day’s Happy Valley fixture. Purton, Moreira and Douglas Whyte also flew down under for hit-and-run Group 1 wins.
But as Moreira and Purton became influential, to some degree, to Hong Kong’s whopping turnover, the Club’s approach altered in the aftermath of a couple of offshore incidents involving ‘the big two’.
In 2015 the HKJC turnover dropped an amount estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars when Moreira and Purton missed an entire Sha Tin fixture the day after riding at Randwick. Strong winds in Hong Kong prevented the pair’s plane landing and it was rerouted to Taiwan where it was grounded for several hours while the races went on without them.
The result was that Sunday racing turnover was down HK$77 million on the previous year’s corresponding day and all early bets returned on the Jockey Challenge. In the aftermath, the HKJC said it would review its approach to overseas Group 1 engagements for Hong Kong-based jockeys.
Two years later, another calamity: Moreira was injured when he fell from his fatally-injured mount in one of the 2017 Melbourne Cup card’s earlier races, forcing him to not only miss his ride on Thomas Hobson in the big race but also the following evening’s Happy Valley fixture.
Hong Kong racing, and Hong Kong turnover, relies somewhat on jockey personalities, given its limited pool of only a handful of elite horses. None more so than Moreira and Purton, whose era of dominance appears to be coming to an end.
Given its current situation, the HKJC needs to make the prospect of riding in Hong Kong appealing again to the star names, not just on short stints but also on longer-term arrangements. Offering more freedom to its licensed jockeys to be able to chase Group 1 rides elsewhere and return in time for domestic fixtures is one way of doing this.
It would also address the imbalance that saw riders like Bowman and Moore being able to fly in and out for Hong Kong’s major races, taking rides from those licensed long-term, while the Hong Kong-based jockeys were not afforded the same degree of liberty going the other way for Group 1 rides.
But even with that freedom, can Hong Kong compete with the draw of the JRA?
Japanese racing has a higher profile than ever before thanks to the exploits of Japanese horses and horsemen globally in recent times. While Hong Kong’s few elite horses have been anchored to Sha Tin through the past three years, Japan’s more plentiful Group 1 contenders have been winning big races in the US, Dubai, Saudi and Hong Kong itself, as well as competing in Europe.
While a top jockey in Hong Kong might get lucky and pick up a ride on a top-class horse there, a leading rider who does the yards in Japan and makes the right contacts could be called up to ride a Group 1 horse at the Breeders’ Cup, at Royal Ascot, in the Dubai World Cup, the Saudi Cup, or in the Cox Plate, as Lane did on Lys Gracieux.
The scope for global exposure and of victory on that stage – and the cut of the purse that comes with it – is clearly greater for a rider with Japanese contacts rather than Hong Kong links.
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