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Hong Kong’s former gun apprentice is working to strengthen his support base as he attempts to climb back up the premiership after breaking from his former boss.
Jerry Chau was in a tricky spot when the season started in September: the former wonderkid apprentice was carrying excess bodyweight, was struggling to get quality rides, and no longer had the race day backing of Douglas Whyte, his one-time mentor.
Chau and Whyte were a dream ticket: the talented, record-breaking apprentice and the living legend, Hong Kong’s 13-time champion jockey turned teacher, coach and sage.
But within months of Chau graduating from his apprenticeship in October 2021, the pair had parted. From February 12 this year, Chau no longer appeared on Whyte’s horses, not until July, as the season drew to a close, did he get another ride for the stable. He is yet to ride for Whyte in this campaign.
The sudden break was sparked by Chau’s unhappiness at losing out on a good quality ride to a more experienced jockey.
“I was a little bit upset but I understand now,” Chau told Asian Racing Report. “I told boss I was upset about that, but afterwards, I went to him and we spoke about it and I said that I understood why he made that decision.
“So, I just asked him if I could ride for outside stables and get more connections outside and I tried to do that.”
It was a tougher split for Chau than Whyte: it came just past the season’s halfway mark yet he rode just ten of his season’s 30 winners after that point. The fact that he was still able to bag a double-digit tally in that back half without Whyte’s horses was a promising sign, but then came the new season.
“The first month there was not the support and my weight was still a bit high after summer so I couldn’t get many good rides,” he said.
Most apprentices, wherever they ride, find it tough when their claim has gone. In Hong Kong, the difficulty is intensified by a roster of 24 to 26 jockeys, vying for mounts in fields that max out at 14 or 12 runners, and that is in part why Hong Kong’s apprentice graduates are afforded a 2lb allowance. Even with that aid, and with Joao Moreira and Karis Teetan sidelined, Chau was still up against it faced with the superstar Zac Purton and seasoned professionals like Silvestre de Sousa, Vincent Ho, Matthew Chadwick and Alexis Badel.
“After my graduation, the support went down quickly,” Chau noted, even though the previous campaign he had broken Chadwick’s season record for the most wins by an apprentice.
There is plenty of focus on the hard competition at the top of the Hong Kong ranks – Purton and Moreira slugging it out, Teetan giving his all for third spot – but the lower reaches are a stark place to be. The foot of the premiership table is a black hole that pulls the unwanted down, caught in a spiral of diminishing support, to eventual jockey oblivion: every time a rider quits or fails to get their licence renewed, those still in the game drop down a spot.
The list of jockeys sucked out of the system includes plenty of former apprentices: no one wants to be the next Alvin Ng or Jacky Tong, unable to continue due to chronically waning support and barely a winner between them, but someone will be. Chau was in danger of sliding towards that bracket: with nine meetings of the current season gone he had one win from 55 rides; he was down among the jockeys riding on borrowed time; Alex Lai, Dylan Mo, Jack Wong, Victor Wong and Alfie Chan, all in danger of losing their licence within the next couple of years unless they can find winning support.
It is a measure of Whyte that the former apprentice turned to his former master, the man he still calls ‘boss’, for advice.
“I still talk to Mr Whyte and he teaches me when I ask him; he’s still happy to talk to me and help me,” Chau said.
“Before my first winner this season I talked to my boss and he saw my rides and he thought that I should trust the horse more and give more rein. I listened and I got the first winner just after he told me this.”
He also spent more time studying his fellow riders, especially Purton.
“I’m always confident in what I do but last month I only had one winner so I started to think about how I can improve,” he said. “I’m always looking at Zac Purton and I watch to see in the race how he puts his horse in the right position.”
Chau said he has ‘worked hard’ on building support, mostly among local Chinese trainers – Tony Millard is the only expat to have put him on this season – and notably Benno Yung and the newly-licensed Pierre Ng.
“Benno and Pierre have given me big support and I ride trackwork for them every day,” he continued. “From the start of October my support started to gradually go up and I got some better-quality rides and started getting winners.
“Pierre trusts me a lot to ride the young horses in trackwork and trials and I’m looking forward to riding some of those good horses for him and hopefully they will progress to the big races.”
Last November he bagged his biggest win, the G2 Jockey Club Sprint on Lucky Patch. This time around it is not so clear as to where that quality of ride might come from; yet with four wins now on the board, he is at least moving in the right direction, climbing against the pull of the vortex.
To think he is out of danger would be folly, of course: there is no room for complacency of thought or action in Hong Kong racing. The black hole is ever-present and it takes hard work and a strong mind as well as talent to execute an escape from its pull.
But after a win at each of the last three meetings, Chau at least appears to be moving in the right direction; and if he maintains progress, perhaps Whyte will have a good one for him again sometime down the line.
“I’ll try my best,” he added. “I want to get good rides from wherever I can.”
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