From showman to scribe: Olivier Doleuze has a new passion away from racing
If there was any Hong Kong jockey that you would expect to struggle adapting to civilian life it would be the larger-than-life showman, supreme athlete and fashionista Olivier Doleuze. But it also shouldn’t surprise that the Frenchman has channeled his considerable talents into a new vocation away from racing.
Olivier Doleuze lapping up the attention of the Hong Kong crowd in 2018. (Photo: Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Olivier Doleuze didn’t do anything by halves during his illustrious career, whether it be his exuberant celebrations on the track or the sartorial elegance he displayed away from it.
The defining images of his career are burnt into the collective memories of Hong Kong racing fans: standing upright in the irons as he crosses the line on Good Ba Ba in the 2008 Champions Mile, or after another Group 1 win on the horse earlier that season; arms outstretched, on his knees on the Sha Tin turf in equal parts exaltation and exhaustion.
Then the 2012 and 2013 Group 1 wins on Eagle Regiment – the first in a photo finish, stretched flat along the big sprinter’s neck, face buried in mane as he reached for the decisive narrow margin, or 12 months later, scorching along the outside rail and screaming and pointing at the crowd – and that adoring Sha Tin crowd screaming right back at him – just metres away.
“When you are in Hong Kong, you are in the middle of a wave,” Doleuze says down the phone from his summer abode in the forests of Gassin, near Saint-Tropez in southern France.
“It is Hong Kong, the city itself, and then being part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and everything that comes with it: the pressure and the happiness. It is a life of movement there.
“It is busy, and the years come and go, hours are like minutes. When I stopped and realised I spent 17 years in Hong Kong, well, it might seem like a long time, but time flies. And when everything stopped so suddenly, it was difficult.
“When I first stopped I didn’t know what to do. I went to Dubai, and it was fine for one or two months, but it left me feeling empty – it is just nothing compared to Hong Kong. When I knew Hong Kong was over, and accepted this, I knew it was time for a change in life direction.”
Good Ba Ba, ridden by Olivier Doleuze wins The Stewards' Cup in 2008 (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images).
Doleuze doing it his way in Mauritius. (Photo: Mauritius Favourite Turf Facebook)
Olivier Doleuze celebrates his Centenary Sprint Cup win on Eagle Regiment in 2013. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)
Before we get into that new life direction, it is worth considering his legendary career in the saddle. The son of trainer and jockey Georges Doleuze, he was destined to ride and already an elite jockey who formed a strong association with Criquette Head from teen-aged apprentice to Group 1 star, but it was Hong Kong where Doleuze truly found his calling.
Before moving to Sha Tin in 2002, Doleuze’s outlandish celebrations as he crossed the finish line – like one famous ‘no hands’ effort in Mauritius – well, crossed the line. He had earned the ire of stewards elsewhere but in Hong Kong, then head of racing Winfred Engelbrecht-Bresges encouraged in-saddle celebrations and post-race interactions with crowds, even if the stewards made sure Doleuze kept his hands on the reins for safety’s sake.
“They let me do my job, they let me be me,” Doleuze said. “I am not the quietest guy in the world but they never tried to change me. They have rules, but it is a special place and I was able to share my joy and my happiness with the crowd.”
I am not the quietest guy in the world but they never tried to change me.
Doleuze is more than just a showman. Only nine jockeys sit above him for all-time wins in Hong Kong and the names tell you all you need to know about the calibre of rider he was: Whyte, Cruz, Purton, Moreira, Prebble, Moore, Marcus, Mosse and Coetzee.
It’s an all-star cast and although those nine jockeys rode more winners, it is hard to imagine any had more fun doing it than Doleuze, and one thing isn’t in dispute; none dressed better, even his ever-dapper countryman Mosse.
He always looked good, but on track, the final seasons of Doleuze’s career were a comparable struggle compared to the earlier peak of Good Ba Ba – on whom he won two Hong Kong Miles – top five jockeys’ championship finishes and his history-making success with Michael Chang’s globetrotter Rich Tapestry, Hong Kong’s first American Grade 1 winner in 2014.
Less than a month after riding Rich Tapestry in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November 1, 2014, Doleuze was forced to take time off to rehabilitate a shoulder injury.
After an intense six-week stint in a kickboxing camp in the northern Thailand jungle, like many who take time away, Doleuze returned to find his regular rides taken. He still managed to chip away with support from John Size and their Centenary Sprint Cup win with D B Pin in 2018 was a Group 1 swansong.
The celebration that day was just a passionate fist pump, but it is another image of Doleuze and D B Pin that sits in the file of memories. It was in defeat, but it might say as much about the jockey’s true character as any jubilation shot: Doleuze holding rival jockey Nash Rawiller’s arm aloft, like a boxing referee, moments after they had slugged it out in the final few strides of the Hong Kong Sprint.
“I was blessed. I reached the highest points in a jockey’s life,” Doleuze said. “The chance to ride against all of the top jockeys, they come from everywhere, you make good friends.
“Being a jockey was my dream, and competing against the best. Even towards the end, when I knew I had a chance in a big race, I could not sleep because I was so excited. It is really something I loved a lot. What I loved most was working closely with somebody, like I had with Criquette in France. I like it when there is a story behind a winner.”
Nash Rawiller, riding Mr Stunning, celebrates his Hong Kong Sprint win with Olivier Doleuze. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
Doleuze has returned once to the city where he made his name and even though he stayed away from the track, he was pleasantly surprised to have locals approach him and wish him well.
“I was walking on the street and some local people came around me, they knew I wasn’t riding but they always had a nice word for me and told me I was a good guy and made them happy,” he says. “I love this because this is what I did it all for.”
“If you were a nice guy, people will remember this, but if you were a piece of shit that won 300 Group 1s then people don’t care. Hong Kong was the best time in my life and I will always remember it. To be successful there is so special, I wish everyone could have the same feeling, it is not like other places.”
Hong Kong was the best time in my life and I will always remember it. To be successful there is so special, I wish everyone could have the same feeling.
After Doleuze retired, in 2019, he lost his mother, and made a decision. Immersing himself in fitness and nutrition, he threw himself into snowboarding in the winter months and kite foiling in the summer, all with the same passion he rode horses. But he still needed something else.
“I started riding when I was 14 and I retired at 47, but life is too short,” he says. “When I saw my mother go I realised I needed more than just horse racing.
“I had to stop. Now, I don’t even watch races. It’s like I turned a page, it is completely over.”
Turned a page. It is a line emphasised by Doleuze, and it is appropriate that one of Hong Kong racing’s great raconteurs has reinvented himself as an author.
“When I retired I studied nutrition a lot, so why not write a book? I learnt how to research, and write, then publish,” he says. “If I wrote a book just on my story, I felt it would be too niche, but I thought I could share my knowledge on nutrition. I wanted to do something simple: it is written for a person that doesn’t necessarily know anything about sport or nutrition, they can take my book and get some answers to questions.
When I retired I studied nutrition a lot, so why not write a book?
“I always took good care of my body, if you want to ride well in Hong Kong you can’t just go and sweat for three hours in the sun. I was always doing different types of exercise and dieting to maintain my weight. You need to have your mind 100 per cent each time you ride a horse there. So why not share some of what I learnt?
“I worked with a ghost writer and I am happy with the book. It is easy reading.”
The book, ‘The Perfect Athlete: Winning with Nutrition’, was released this year, and it is, as promised, an easy-to-read guide full of insight.
Oliver Doleuze and his book (Photo: Supplied)
Of course Doleuze is already hard at work on a follow-up, this time on sports psychology and an athlete’s mindset, appropriate given the positive attitude he has carried into his new career.
“I found the transition quite difficult but I am happy now. I have time to think about and reflect on what I have done. I have time to think about what I have accomplished and although there is no need to be too nostalgic, if you keep living in the past you won’t look forward, but when I look at what happened in my life I am very happy and grateful for the chance to be able to do what I love so much, riding horses in Hong Kong.
“You know what is important? it’s not about the amount of races you won, it’s about the story behind it, because at the end of the day the only thing left is this. The memories. From Good Ba Ba to D B Pin, the fantastic horses, and this is what I think of, these memories.
It is difficult when you are on top of that wave and you fly really high and suddenly there is no fuel in the plane. I understand how difficult it is for people when racing stops, because that is the thing I loved the most, and even now I don’t feel whole.
“I train like an athlete every day. I am sure I am in the physical shape to ride but if it wasn’t three years ago that I retired, it would have to be one day, and that decision was difficult. But I am blessed, Hong Kong was great to me and I am very happy today.”