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Hong Kong’s ‘local’ heroes still contending with the expat factor

Hong Kong locals Matthew Chadwick and Vincent Ho are in the running for the Tony Cruz Award but both are focused instead on securing more quality rides.

Jockeys Vincent Ho and Matthew Chadwick back in 2016. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist

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Matthew Chadwick is in the process of compiling his biggest win tally since the Group One glory days of California Memory almost a decade ago, but the former record-setting champion apprentice is not considering his achievement with anything other than tempered realism.

Now 31, he is among the seniors in a golden generation of ‘local riders’ that includes Vincent Ho, Derek Leung, Matthew Poon and the emerging Jerry Chau – the best crop Hong Kong itself has ever produced – yet, for all of their achievements, Chadwick is ‘frustrated’ that the locals are still not matching their expatriate peers when it comes to winning the high-end races.   

“People seem to want the gloss of an expat rider on those horses,” he told Asian Racing Report. “Overall, I think trainers and owners definitely are putting up local riders more than they used to though: that could be because of Covid with less new expat riders coming in and that’s given us more opportunities. But, at the same time, they do still have their preferences for the better horses.

“Everyone is looking for quality rides and if you get on a roll and avoid suspension and knock in a few winners, you’re always hoping to get on slightly better horses but it’s just not happening.”

Everyone is looking for quality rides and if you get on a roll and avoid suspension and knock in a few winners, you’re always hoping to get on slightly better horses.

Chadwick’s 49 wins – his best was 57 in 2012-13 – have him sitting fourth in the Hong Kong jockeys’ premiership with five meetings of the season remaining and that makes the Hong Kong-raised jockey the highest positioned ‘local’ in the standings. It also puts him in pole position – three ahead of Ho – to win that quite peculiar accolade, the Tony Cruz Award ‘for the leading local rider’, which Ho made his own in the previous three campaigns.

The Tony Cruz Award might be an interesting mantlepiece adornment but Chadwick has been around the Hong Kong racing scene too long to be distracted by it. After all, he hit Group One heights at an early age, suffered the hurtling drop-off of fickle fashion and has had to grit his teeth, knuckle down and plug on dourly through the wilderness years that brought him three consecutive injury-affected seasons.

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Matthew Chadwick celebrates winning the 2012 G1 Hong Kong Cup aboard his great champion California Memory. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit via Getty Images)

Expat allure

Chadwick, Ho, Leung, Poon and Chau all sit in the top 10 among 23 riders on the current Hong Kong roster. Their positions this term – and last when Ho earned a personal best 61 wins – are solid evidence that outside of the in-demand Mauritian light-weight Karis Teetan and dominant big two riders, Zac Purton and Joao Moreira, the best ‘local’ jockeys are set firm in holding their own with the expat jockeys.

Tellingly, though, Hong Kong staged 34 Group and four-year-old feature races this season and the expat riders won 21 to the local riders’ nine, with four of the nine falling to the champion Golden Sixty and Ho. Of the 110 ‘local’ rider engagements in those races, 83 started at double figure odds.

Ho, 32, is a three-time Tony Cruz Award winner and Leung, 33, has won it twice but that accolade seems to hold little weight when it comes to the day-to-day business of securing quality rides. Group One-winning expat riders seem to be a bigger draw when a trainer or owner is looking for an eye-catching booking for a Derby horse or even, in many cases, an athletic young PPG destined for the top.   

Ho, it must be said, is the star among the locals and has a growing international profile. It takes a bona fide top tier jockey to earn a coveted JRA short contract to ride in Japan as he has been granted this summer, ahead of the expats he has to vie with for good rides at home.

His propulsion to being an international rider is due in no small part to his ever-present partnership with the standout Hong Kong champion of the present, Golden Sixty, a horse he in fact hooked up with as a promising PPG.  

“Golden Sixty is a special case and I’m just lucky to be on him in the first place,” Ho observed. “Francis and the owner gave me a chance and kept me on him all the time but, if we’re being realistic, if another owner or trainer had him, surely, I’d have been taken off him a long time ago.”

Golden Sixty is a special case and I’m just lucky to be on him in the first place.

That is what happened to Derek Leung when he lost the ride on the subsequent world champion miler Beauty Generation within six weeks of winning the Group One Hong Kong Mile, and to Chadwick, forever associated with California Memory, but who was replaced at times aboard the little grey by Felix Coetzee, Douglas Whyte and Gerald Mosse; Chadwick was Pakistan Star’s original rider, too, but lost that mount to a whole line-up of big-name expats.

“I think we, as local riders, have some better support nowadays,” Ho continued. “But quality rides, overall, are usually more difficult to stay on or they’re difficult even to get on. As local riders, we’re never the first choice anyway, because Joao and Zac are definitely first and then it’s Karis, Alexis (Badel) and those guys, and then we’re after them.”

Matthew Chadwick (right) and Vincent Ho (left). (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

Always proving

Ho and Chadwick are simply explaining a situation rather than bemoaning their lot and neither expects any reward without effort. They are both time-served veterans of one of the world’s most intense environments for a jockey and they understand and roll with the cut-throat nature of it all.

Ho developed his skills as an apprentice under the watch of his supportive boss at the time, Caspar Fownes, and then went overseas during the summer off-seasons to learn more by riding in France and in Britain for the powerful Mark Johnston stable. 

Chadwick’s meteoric rise, first during his training in Australia and then under the tutelage of trainer Tony Cruz, was followed by experiences that have toughened him to the fickleness of the sport in the city.

“But realistically we need someone to back us in the way Francis (Lui) did with Vincent,” said Chadwick.

One noticeable fact is that both Chadwick and Ho have accrued most of their wins from the 13 ‘local’ trainers rather than the nine expat handlers. Only seven of Chadwick’s 49 wins this term have been for expat trainers; of his 46 wins, Ho has had eight from four expat trainers and four of those victories were for his old boss Fownes.

“It’s always been the case with the expat trainers that we have to push ourselves harder and prove ourselves all the time and it’s frustrating because we’ve been here for so long, but that’s just how it is,” Chadwick said.

It’s always been the case with the expat trainers that we have to push ourselves harder and prove ourselves all the time and it’s frustrating because we’ve been here for so long.

“Most of us have done the hard work, we have seen so many different riders coming in and out, we know our footing here and now we just need the chances. You bang in a couple of wins and hope for that break on a good horse but the reality is it’s hard to come by.

“I’ve been here so long that I know you can never let your guard down, you have to keep at it all the time.”

Vincent Ho and Golden Sixty win the G1 Champions Mile at Sha Tin. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)

But Ho acknowledged that he has been ‘the problem’ when it comes to seeking rides from most expat trainers: “I’m not active enough in chasing some of those rides, which I should do but I’m not really good at it,” he said.

Historically, the ‘local’ jockeys have been down the pecking order behind expat riders, headed by Gary Moore, Basil Marcus, Whyte, Coetzee, Mosse, Brett Prebble and the like. Cruz, in 1995, was the last homegrown Hong Kong champion.

Cruz was an anomaly, a world class rider well ahead of his time and his peers, in the ‘local’ context. Nowadays, the gap in talent has closed.

“This generation of locals is better because we got sent overseas and we came back and we raced against the best in a really tough environment here. The handicap is so much closer now than it used to be, if you make a mistake, you won’t win and all this improves every jockey who races here,” said Ho.

The handicap is so much closer now than it used to be, if you make a mistake, you won’t win and all this improves every jockey who races here.

Yet 12 years since Alex Lai won the Group One Sprinters Stakes in Japan to show that Hong Kong’s own were capable on the world stage and 10 and a half years since Chadwick made it back-to-back Hong Kong Cup wins on California Memory, the ‘local’ riders are still working to shake off the last particles of the clinging biases of the past.

“It’s much better than it was,” added Chadwick. “But I feel like I’m still clinging on to my rides, that I’ve got to keep proving to people I can get these horses to win.”

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