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Neil Callan on his Hong Kong departure, that infamous inquiry and his new life in England.
Cobbles Ices, the distinctive Plymouth ice-cream van, is doing a solid trade at sun-blessed Thirsk on ‘Irish Day’. The vintage Morris J van has made the 350-mile journey to North Yorkshire and is pumping out its cooling wares behind the Hambleton Stand, a nostalgia-evoking red brick construction from the 1920s skirted in clinging ivy.
The paddock environs are as serene as the idyllic countryside that stretches out beyond the track’s northern rim. Jockeys drift in and out of the weighing room and pass between racegoers as they make their way to mount up. The vibe is very much on the ice-cream end of the chilled-out scale.
Into this scene steps Neil Callan, the former ‘Iron Man’ of Hong Kong racing, a jockey known in his time around Sha Tin as much for his blunt banter and abrasive opinions as for his sleeves-rolled, never-give-up riding style.
It is closing in on one year since Callan’s time in Hong Kong ended in dissonance: a riding infraction led to a heated stewards’ inquiry, a show-cause hearing and a lengthy suspension; then came an appeal, a partial victory and public vindication; a return to the Sha Tin winners’ arch; then the decision to move back to England and a new life with his family having purchased the 20-acre Sarabex Stud outside Newmarket.
“Let’s sit here,” he says, and parks on a bench in the shade outside the weighing room.
He has just placed second on a 40-1 shot in a modest five-runner novice stakes worth £8,000 to the winner, one of only two rides on the card. He sits at ease.
“You come to racecourses like Thirsk and it’s very chilled but it’s still a great atmosphere,” he says. “But there’s always competition, wherever you ride in England, this is why we do the job, the competition; there are a lot of good lads, a lot of good friends and it’s a very good environment to be riding in.”
It is a contrast to the round-the-clock intensity of Hong Kong where he rode full-time from 2014, having started with short winter contracts from 2010. Callan rode 283 winners in the city and bagged major victories at Sha Tin – in front of tens of thousands of roaring race fans – aboard the top-class gallopers Beauty Only and Blazing Speed.
He earned his stripes as a combative stalwart, a respected artisan of a rider who competed admirably in the famously difficult arena against some of the jockeys’ room’s great artists, the likes of Gerald Mosse, Joao Moreira, Zac Purton, Douglas Whyte and Brett Prebble.
Last winter, though, he was mixing it with Abdulla Faisal, David Egan, Husain Makki, Charlie Bishop and Paddy Mathers on the more sedate Bahrain circuit, where he rode for Sheikh Sultan’s AlMohamediya Racing and Fawzi Nass. He was crowned champion with 28 wins at a near 34 per-cent strike-rate.
He has a casual arrangement to ride for trainer Marco Botti in Britain this season and his total yield so far is 16 wins at a 13 per-cent strike rate. His strategy is to take rides that he hopes will enhance his profile: ‘riding decent horses is how you get noticed,’ is the way to do it, he says, rather than chasing longshots just for the ride and the fee.
“I miss the buzz of Hong Kong, of course I do, I miss the racing there,” he says. “It’s a different environment, there are different pressures on you: Hong Kong is very intense, there’s a lot of pressure. It was a great place to ride.”
But he is not itching to go back.
It was at Windsor on May 2 when ‘the elephant in the room’ stomped Callan’s way. The rider was in the paddock, wearing the bright orange silks of Jastar, a colour scheme matched by the owner’s suit. Broadcaster Matt Chapman interrupted with his microphone and live-feed camera, and a comment about the orange theme.
Callan shot back with a reference to Chapman’s trademark perma-tan hue. It prompted Chapman to retort along the lines that Callan’s chippy manners to the stewards must be why he was kicked out of Hong Kong. On the face of it, it was tit-for-tat stuff.
“It was unprofessional of him,” Callan says. “But if he can just pop out on live TV and come out with something as immature and childish as that, well, that doesn’t bother me at all. I know the truth of what happened in Hong Kong and I am very comfortable with myself on how I handled the situation.”
But the Chapman exchange highlighted that there is a void of knowledge about the events in that Happy Valley stewards’ inquiry on February 3, 2021 and in the weeks and months thereafter. While Callan might be comfortable on the one hand, the idea that he might be perceived as an unreasonable aggressor prickles.
A lot of people still think I must have swore or threatened them: I didn’t do a thing.
“For the past 10 years I’ve behaved like that in an inquiry,” he says. “A lot of people still think I must have swore or threatened them: I didn’t do a thing. Obviously, I was a bit loud because I was defending myself but this is what they want you to do.
“It is really like being in a court of law. Every time you go in you feel like you need a lawyer with you, that’s what it feels like.”
Asian Racing Report has seen a full copy of the inquiry transcript. Callan put forward a robust, argumentative, unbending defence, and, throughout that exchange, the language he used was not offensive or insulting.
With only the words on paper, without visual or audio evidence, it is impossible to say what the exact tone was but it seems that acting Chief Stipe Steve Railton’s forbearance was fatigued by Callan’s continuing disputation of the initial charge and the punishment of a HK$20,000 fine and three-meeting suspension.
In a development that ‘shocked’ Callan, he was summoned subsequently to a show cause hearing on April 22, at which he was handed a long suspension until the end of the season in mid-July. To most observers, that signalled the end of his Hong Kong tenure.
But the case had stirred up media scrutiny and support for Callan in Hong Kong’s Chinese language publications, in online forums, across social media and within the city’s racing community.
“One trainer said to me ‘you have to appeal this for the sake of you and everyone else, you have to’. So, I did,” he says.
The appeal panel reduced his suspension to end on May 27 and he rode until his contract concluded that July. Initially, he says, he was not asked to apply for a new licence but then, after the deadline had passed, he said he was sent the application forms and asked to submit. He opted instead to join his family who had already returned to Newmarket.
“You know, I still don’t really know what it was all about?” he says. “I had to apologise for my conduct in an inquiry when all I felt I was doing was defending my position; I felt they weren’t listening to me.
“There were times in the past when I told them I was leaving,” he continues. “The time they did me over the incident with Eddie Lai when he tried to ride me down the fence. They did us both for improper riding and I went mad. In that inquiry, I went ballistic. I was actually shaking and sweating that time. I told them I was going home and wasn’t coming back. At the time I was top three or top four and flying: I appealed and got off.”
Callan has previously had opportunities to share finer details of his ordeal. When interviewed by Nick Luck on Racing TV last September, he talked about ‘leaving the door open’ for a return to Hong Kong and not ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’.
Now that more time has passed, Callan feels he can speak more directly.
“My family and I were put in a sticky situation but I didn’t want to come out (on Racing TV) and knee-jerk slag anyone because I wanted to leave the door open, in case I felt like I did want to reapply,” he says.
“And there’s that respect for the Hong Kong Jockey Club – I have no issue with the Club as an institution – and what Hong Kong gave me and my family. But the question is still out there about what happened. So, I feel now is the time to put it on record and explain that I’m home now, I’m settled in and this is where I want to be.”
The jockeys have returned to scale after the 4.05pm. The sun is still bright, the queue for ice-cream is not dwindling and Callan must put on his silks for the next, a seven-runner Class 2 handicap worth £16,200 to the winner: It would have taken an awful lot of races like this to pay for that property at Newmarket.
“When everything is said and done,” he adds. “I’ve got a great property that I’ve always dreamt of and Hong Kong racing, through the Hong Kong Jockey Club, has paid for that. I’ve got nothing to be bitter about.”
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