Michael Cox



COMMENT | Compassion, not commodification, could be the key to rebuilding Hong Kong’s jockey roster

Money isn’t all that motivates today’s top jockeys and perhaps it is the human touch that the Hong Kong Jockey Club needs to lure the biggest names back to the city.

The Hong Kong racing jockey roster lacks the star power it boasted 16 years ago. When Zac Purton stepped foot onto Sha Tin Racecourse for the first time in 2006, he walked into a hornets’ nest of competition. 

The wide-eyed 24-year-old was confronted by the steely glare of Douglas Whyte – then the reigning six-time champion, his dominant run not even halfway complete – plus a deep bench consisting of Shane Dye, Brett Prebble, Gerald Mosse, Felix Coetzee, Glen Boss, Eric Saint-Martin, Anthony Delpech, Olivier Doleuze, Manoel Nunes, Danny Nikolic and Kevin Shea.  

Purton’s arrival coincided with that of an in-his-prime Darren Beadman, fresh off bettering his fellow Australian with a record-setting 162-win season in Sydney, his fifth straight premiership there and seventh overall. The reigning three-time French champion rider Christophe Soumillon then turned up mid-season and notched 18 wins.

Purton scratched his way to 29 victories for the season. 

It took Purton seven years to usher in a new era, clawing his way past Whyte in 2013-14 and then battling with Joao Moreira for the better part of a decade as the two riders won the next nine titles between them.

Purton looks locked in for a sixth title this season but his retirement looms large – he has told Asian Racing Report he will not be riding in two years – and with injury making Joao Moreira’s future uncertain, the quality of the Hong Kong riding ranks is under scrutiny. 

Of the current crop, Karis Teetan has forged out a near decade-long career as a proven lightweight, and three-time British champion Silvestre de Sousa has a CV that would have stacked up against the class of 2007; but he is not yet full time. The rest of the room is full of talent, but more from the youthful end of the scale or scaled-down budget versions of those former stars. Of course the profile of local riders has been lifted and Vincent Ho, in particular, is a genuine star. 

Since Purton was tested all of those years ago Hong Kong has become more known as a place top jockeys go on their way to the top – a type of finishing school with graduates like Damian Lane and Oisin Murphy – not where stars go in their prime, unless they’re on a hit-and-run big-race mission. 

South Africans Lyle Hewitson and Luke Ferraris are great foundation pieces for the future but are 24 and 20 respectively. The current roster boasts admirable diversity (at least by nations represented, the lack of a female rider has been glaring for years) but there is an established star power lacking, and what it could have been was on show in Sydney on Saturday when Blake Shinn continued his scintillating form. 

Shinn’s double means he has now ridden 12 wins from his last 39 rides and he also went within inches of taking the G1 Spring Champion Stakes on Elliptical. 

The 35-year-old Shinn had established himself in Hong Kong to the point he may have been considered ‘next in line’ to Purton and Moreira, but left at the end of last season, telling local press at the time “the mental stress has become too much.” 


New Hong Kong recruits Lyle Hewitson (left) and Blake Shinn are unveiled in 2019. (Photo by HKJC)

That was after two seasons of relentless Covid protocols had worn down many jockeys. Aside from that, many potential visitors must be looking at Purton and Moreira’s physical breakdowns with caution. 

Both are not yet 40 but Purton recently admitted in an interview that he has the bone density of a 60-year-old, has fractured 17 bones since late last year and is currently riding with a broken bone in his foot. That is on top of recurring problems with kidney stones and back issues that require management. 

Moreira’s degenerative hip issues have stopped his career in its tracks and he is likely to require hip surgery one day, whether he continues to ride or not. 

It is often said that it has been Purton and Moreira’s duopoly that scares potential rivals away but maybe potential rivals had been reading the dominant duo’s medical records, not riding records. 

Purton’s recent take on Australian sports radio about Sydney’s current champion and Saturday’s Cox Plate-winning rider James McDonald was worth noting. 

“At the end of the day when he looks at his bank account and he looks at my bank account, he’s stupid for staying in Australia,” Purton said, adding that his earnings are “six or seven times” what they would be in his homeland. 

The prize money equation has long been clear though, Hong Kong has by far the highest per-race prize money in the world. 

Zac Purton with fellow Australian jockeys Shane Dye and Darren Beadman in 2007. (Photo by Getty Images)

Then there is lower tax, paid on-course accommodation and return business class flights. So why don’t the top tier of established riders want to be based out of Hong Kong anymore? 

Firstly, one of the most pervasive myths of full-time riding in Hong Kong is that racing twice-per-week is somehow easier than the near daily grind elsewhere. The simplistic idea ignores the intensity of the predominantly sprint and mile races that require explosive starts and that every rider is expected to ride hard to the line, regardless of finishing position, or that much of the season is run in oppressive heat and humidity. Then there is daily trackwork, barrier trials and the mental stress of representing yourself without a manager. 

Shinn’s success since leaving speaks for itself. It is evidence that there is more to life than big prize money and low taxes. And regardless, Purton is right: McDonald does have a mortgage, but it is on a luxury home in Sydney that cost A$9million, and he doesn’t look in danger of missing a repayment. De Sousa has an acreage to return to on the outskirts of Newmarket. The Hong Kong lifestyle suits Purton but it isn’t for everyone. 

Maybe money isn’t the point – at least not all of it – and it would benefit the Jockey Club to start looking more empathetically at the human side of human resources. 

Even before the Covid restrictions that were deemed necessary to keep racing going and the turnover machine ticking, there was a sense that the freedom for Hong Kong-based jockeys was diminishing. 

Jockeys were limited in their opportunities to fly to Australia on non-Hong Kong race days to compete in Group 1s. There were no limits on foreign jockeys flying in to contest Hong Kong’s biggest races though. 

One of the Jockey Club’s supposed targets now is Hugh Bowman, but he has won more Hong Kong features flying in on an overnight business class flight than when he was based at Sha Tin. Same goes for the fly-in G1 opportunities granted to top British riders like Ryan Moore or William Buick; why would they take up HKJC licences when they can have their cake and eat it too? 

Hugh Bowman wins the Hong Kong Classic Mile aboard Furore in 2019. (Photo by HKJC)

Restrictions seem to have been eased on Hong Kong’s jockeys when it comes to rides overseas but it has been nearly three years since Purton even rode in an Australian G1 and he may have missed his chance to win a Melbourne Cup. 

The Jockey Club has made great advances in the medical expertise afforded its star riders in recent years. Improved first-aid, access to specialists, a range of physical therapy options and psychological support areas that have all been addressed after pressure from riders. 

Recently, Moreira’s raw honesty when describing his physical and mental struggles was met with immediate public statements of compassion and concern from Jockey Club officials. 

“The club will continue to support him in this in every way possible, including the ongoing assistance whilst he is in Brazil,” said the HKJC’s executive director of racing Andrew Harding. “His health and wellbeing are the only things that matter.” 

Too often in the past the athletes of Hong Kong racing have been reduced to numbers. When a horse was a late withdrawal due to injury, the amount of money lost in turnover would be announced. Sometimes there was a sense that jockeys were being treated like a precious betting commodity as well. 

The genuine sentiment expressed by officials in light of Moreira’s sad situation may signal change and speaks to something beyond materialism. Making that part of the pitch might pay off when it comes to finding the best possible recruits. 



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