‘If you want to do a popular job, go work for the Red Cross’: how Kim Kelly gained respect under pressure

A meeting featuring an all-time great edition of the Stewards’ Cup provides a fitting farewell for ‘racing tragic’ Kim Kelly after two decades in the hot seat as a Jockey Club steward.

Kim Kelly's time in Hong Kong is coming to an end. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Michael Cox



Before an ambitious and highly touted racing official Kim Kelly left Sydney for a role on the Hong Kong Jockey Club stewards’ panel in 2002 he had heard about the intensity of the jurisdiction, but had his doubts. Surely it wasn’t the “every race is like a Group 1” pressure cooker people claimed. 

“Before I came here here there was this old adage that I had heard people say, that ‘in Hong Kong, every day is Golden Slipper day’, and I would play that down a little bit,” Kelly told Asian Racing Report in the lead-up to his final meeting in the city after two decades – including 13 years as chief steward – on January 29. “But I learnt very quickly, when I got here, that what they said was exactly right.

“For 88 race meetings each season, every single day is like Golden Slipper day, there are days in other jurisdictions where there are midweek meetings with less races and small fields, and you can go into it thinking that ‘today might not be a bad day,’ but you can never go into a race meeting here with that mindset, you have to be ready for anything.” 

Massive, sometimes volatile betting pools, the biggest-per-race prize money in the world and tight racing featuring the most competitive riders from all parts of the racing world are just the start of what makes Hong Kong racing a tough task for stewards at Sha Tin and Happy Valley. 

“There’s a lot that can go wrong in a horse race, anywhere in the world, but there’s so much more that can go wrong in a race here,” Kelly says. 

And of course, at times, things have gone wrong during a stint as the man in charge of ensuring Hong Kong racing is run safely and fairly. Perhaps the first that comes to mind – when it comes to a pressure decision – was when Kelly voided a race for the first time in more than 130 years of racing in Hong Kong, triggering the refund of HK$126 million (US$16 million) in bets, all because of a barrier malfunction caused by a stray garden rake.


'Rakegate' saw a race at Happy Valley voided in 2016. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

As memorable as it was, that incident, dubbed “rakegate”, was outside of Kelly’s control, and it has been noted that what hasn’t gone wrong during his time in charge are the types of reputation damaging, race fixing and corruption scandals that plagued Hong Kong racing in the 1980s and 1990s. There has not been an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into manipulation of races during Kelly’s tenure. 

We could try and describe Kelly’s professional demeanour – the words forthright, direct and intense come to mind – but perhaps it is best just to say that his WhatsApp avatar is a picture of Darth Vader. Some people choose cute pet photos or food pics. “I am a Star Wars fan, but I think he has a character whose personality I identify with,” he says of the choice. 

Former Jockey Club chief stipe John Schreck called the role of chief steward ‘a lonely job’ and although Kelly admits he knows where one of his famous predecessors in the role is coming from, he adds, “If you want to do a popular job, go work for the Red Cross or something. 

“You don’t do this type of job to win popularity contests, we have got to be the voice of punters, the voice of owners,” Kelly says. “We have got to do what we do to protect those groups and protect the reputation of racing here and the reputation of the club. That is what we do and anything less than that would not be acceptable.” 

Pressure. For the stewards it comes from everywhere in Hong Kong racing; officials, media, punters, trainers and jockeys. Even the city itself – busy, noisy and sweltering, and in recent times boiling over with political tension or locked down and restricted due to Covid – has its way of testing character. Kelly came to embrace it, just as he did criticism. 

The local racing media in Hong Kong can be relentlessly savage and many times Kelly was in its crosshairs. One memorable campaign in Apple Daily included a cartoon depicting Kelly as a Buddhist monk, cradling Zac Purton, swaddled in an Australian flag, absolving the jockey of his ‘sins’ in a bathing ceremony. “I’ll take care of my Australian mate,” the caption inferred in Chinese.

Apple Daily takes a swipe at Kim Kelly. (Photo supplied)

Kelly welcomed the scrutiny and was always an available, patient and engaging presence with local press – popular even – though he drew the line when it came to the historically loaded suggestion he showed bias towards his fellow Australians, or against locals. 

“The press have a job to do, and it is a job we respect very much, and the role of the press is to keep people honest, people like the chief stipe,” he says. “Every reporter or columnist has a right to an opinion, the same as I do, it was only when things got personal and there was criticism along racial lines that I ever intervened, but they were relatively infrequent in the scheme of things. 

“The fact that there is so much written about horse racing in Hong Kong is a fantastic thing because it tells you that the sport is relevant here. I love the fact that a lot of press are writing about the sport in Hong Kong because it means that the sport of horse racing is popular, and long may that be the case.” 

The cartoon, that Kelly saw the funny side of, seems even sillier given Purton, like any top rider, has been fined millions of dollars by stewards over the years for careless riding and various on-track infractions – and also copped a then-record HK$300,000 (US$38,000) fine levied by Kelly for failing to report an approach by a punter to make “arrangements” in 2011 – but it speaks volumes of the respect the chief steward has gained that the five-time champion jockey was willing to provide a tribute to the outgoing ‘sheriff’ for this story.

Zac Purton aboard D B Pin, the 'winner' of the voided race. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

“We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but we sit on opposite sides of the desk in the stewards’ room and at times things are going to be strained,” Purton said. “But Kim has always conducted himself with the utmost integrity and run his inquiries in the most professional manner.

“What people outside of Hong Kong don’t understand is the pressure put on us, including the stewards, coming from various angles. He has always had an unwavering confidence in what he does. He has surrounded himself with some great people which certainly helps and he leaves the Hong Kong Jockey Club in a better place than when he arrived and I think that is the true mark of an exceptional talent.” 

The rewards for top Jockey Club officials willing to withstand the pressure, or rise above it, can be lucrative and Kelly returns to Australia after two decades with work as “an option, not a necessity.” He says he will dedicate himself to spending more time with family in his home city of Brisbane and being a first time grandfather. “I don’t have to go back to anything, but if something falls in my lap that is right for me, or that I am challenged by, then great, but it won’t be full time,” he says.  

Kelly is confident that his successor Marc Van Gestel, also coming via the Sydney production line that produced his predecessors Jamie Stier and before that, Schreck, can continue his legacy. “I think the club is in wonderful hands as far as its regulation goes with Marc and Terry Bailey, and Ken Kwok, Gerard Bush and Justin Ho. It was very important for me that when I walked out of the place that it was in good hands.” 

Marc Van Gestel. (Photo by Mark Evans)

But first, one more meeting. It is fitting that the final fixture for Kelly features the running of the Stewards’ Cup (even if the name refers to the board of stewards, the Jockey Club’s 12-member board, not the stipendiary panel). For Kelly it is also extra special that the race is one of the most anticipated in Hong Kong racing history as Golden Sixty, Romantic Warrior and California Spangle square off. 

It is special because, beyond that intensity and dedication to the role, Kelly is a self-confessed ‘racing tragic’ and boasts that he has had ‘the best seat in the house’ for a golden era of Hong Kong racing. 

As far as great memories are concerned, Silent Witness’ winning sequence, Lord Kanaloa’s second Hong Kong Sprint and Chautauqua’s freakish come-from-behind victory in the 2016 Chairman’s Sprint Prize all rank highly in Kelly’s estimation, but for a man with a deep respect and reverence for the sport, his final day in charge might just top them all.  

“I love the history of racing,” Kelly says. “I especially love the theatre of racing; the tactics, the magnificent animals with skilled riders on their backs and great conditioners sending them out. I think it is a wonderful spectacle.” 

On that score, watching the Stewards’ Cup, from the eighth floor Sha Tin stewards’ room, could provide the perfect send off.




    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing