Michael Cox



‘Idle hands’: the link between jockey licensing and integrity in Hong Kong

The disqualification of two Hong Kong-based jockeys has emphasised the need for a competitive jockey roster, writes Michael Cox.

There is a lot to unpack in the aftermath of the shock disqualifications of Silvestre de Sousa and Vagner Borges.  

Both pleaded guilty, and De Sousa has appealed the severity of the charge for his part in the allegations – that he ‘facilitated’ a bet for his countryman – but that leaves Borges. For now, the most common question of many being asked is how, exactly, was he caught betting? 

Those details will surely become more clear in time, but in the meantime, another burning question lingers, on a slightly more lighthearted note: why did the banned Brazilians feel compelled to bet on a Dennis Yip horse at Happy Valley? 

Seriously, if the charges stick, so will the stigma of a betting charge long after the 12 months bans for rule 59 (3) has expired, but what will sting even more for Borges is that he didn’t even get an earn – the horse finished seventh. So, in future, when somebody asks Borges what he was suspended for, and he answers, “betting on a horse in Hong Kong,” and the inevitable question is asked, “well, did it win?”, he will face the indignity of saying “nope.” 


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    Luckily there is no rule for poor punting or plenty of us would be in trouble, the financial loss is punishment enough. There is also no HKJC rule among its 176 rules or subsequent sub-rules that legislates against idiocy, but if there was, then conspiring to back the $18 chance Young Brilliant – a horse raced by the Jockey Club’s young members club, no less, so essentially owned by the HKJC – as it is alleged the Brazilian has done, would be an act eligible for the harshest possible punishment. 

    Yip’s record at Happy Valley since the start of the 2021-22 season is nine wins from 337 starts, for an appalling strike rate of 2.7%. It isn’t a record to fill a punter, or down on his luck jockey for that matter, with confidence. 

    If Borges was feeling bullish about his chances it highlights the lack of genuine winning opportunities he had been riding otherwise – Young Brilliant was, relatively speaking, a great chance for Borges – and that speaks to the importance the Jockey Club’s licencing committee play in integrity. Why? There is a case to be made, that based on performance, Borges – he of 19 wins last season, and just seven wins from 247 rides so far this term at 2.8% – should have not been riding in Hong Kong at all. 

    Borges had ridden Young Brilliant in its previous two starts at $126 and $133, which continued a trend for the lightweight jockey. The 30-year-old had just one ride, Fingers Crossed, on the Wednesday night at Sha Tin before he was charged and it was a rarity, for the jockey, that it figured in betting. Prior to that the last single-figure chance Borges had ridden was in February, 75 rides ago, and the average price of his rides during that stretch was $63.

    Vagner Borges celebrates a rare Group 3 win on Sight Success in January. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

    Now some might argue that somebody has to ride the slow ones, or even that in a closed-shop handicapping system that features 20-pound weight spreads like Hong Kong then no horse should start $200-plus in a 14-horse field at all, but Borges was finding himself on plenty of ‘no hopers’. 

    The point isn’t to run down Borges, who is a capable young jockey who hopefully bounces back from this serious speedbump, but it almost certainly won’t be in Hong Kong that he will be riding for redemption. 

    The trouble with a jockeys’ roster that features too many unsupported riders punching around horses with slim chances of winning is that the incentive to lose or team ride becomes greater. Call it idle hands. 

    The Hong Kong government’s strict Covid protocols, backed by even harsher Jockey Club requirements, had jockeys knocking back invites to Hong Kong. 

    Those restrictions are gone, the club has again made serious prizemoney boosts and the licencing committee has a host of new incentives to offer overseas riders, including lucrative off-course rent arrangements and other perks. 

    Then there are the new freedoms that allow jockeys to take occasional breaks through the season and accept rides in more overseas races. 

    It should result in a serious replenishment in the jockeys’ roster, but it is a recruitment drive that needs to focus at the bottom of the premiership table as much as the top.




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