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Tony Cruz is a living legend in Hong Kong but the award that carries his name does not do justice to the jockeys for whom it was created.
Hong Kong’s season ends this weekend after 10 and a half intense months but before the participants can jump on a plane for a long overdue getaway, there is the flaunty matter of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) end of year Champion Awards.
The handing out of those 13 accolades is a big deal in Hong Kong: the prestigious Horse of the Year statuette is given at a glitzy function for owners, jockeys, trainers and dignitaries, and has gone to most of the city’s greatest thoroughbreds down the years including Golden Sixty, who appears to be in a head-to-head this time with the Hong Kong Derby hero Romantic Warrior.
Rewarding excellence is the widely-promoted premise and the top awards tend to achieve their goal: but alongside each divisional champion – miler, stayer etc. – and the mightily important business of champion trainer and champion jockey, is the rather incongruous Tony Cruz Award.
That is not to say Tony Cruz is out of place in having his name attached to an award: the great jockey and outstanding trainer’s name fits well with any pursuit of excellence. The problem, rather, is with the award’s root concept.
The Tony Cruz Award is given to the season’s leading ‘local rider’ – which is code for Hong Kong raised and educated through the apprentice jockeys’ school – and such exclusivity makes it very much a secondary concern to the champion jockey award. That being so, the question is begging to be asked: Why is it given at all?
Matthew Chadwick appears to have this season’s Tony Cruz Award sewn up thanks to his 54 wins: he is fourth in the premiership after a fine season. His nearest pursuer Vincent Ho is five behind him and next best is Derek Leung, who is seven in arrears; they sit sixth and seventh in the premiership. The achievements of all three riders – their place in the jockey standings, the feature races they have won down the years – all speak to their standing as highly-performed jockeys.
A look into the relatively short history of the award tells us that Ho and Leung have received it five times between them going back to 2017, a year after the first Tony Cruz Award was presented to Kei Chiong, whose star shot high and shone brightly only to fade away all too rapidly.
Before that, there was the title of Leading Freelance Rider – same thing but without the legend’s name attached – but the big aim historically for those young ‘local’ jockeys was always to be crowned champion apprentice, as were Ho and Chadwick.
Dicky Lui’s apprenticeship changed that. Despite his deficiencies as a jockey of limited ability, lack of any competition meant Lui was the leading apprentice in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. However, on July 10, 2015, due to poor performance and suspensions, he failed to show cause as to why he should be relicensed and that was the end of his riding career.
It was also the end of the champion apprentice title. Faced with the prospect of such awkward scenarios repeating, the HKJC opted to drop the award quietly. Instead, the Leading Freelance Rider was rebranded under the Tony Cruz moniker for its trumpeted inauguration in July 2016 and a sub-text was added to the champion jockey narrative: the battle to be named the best ‘homegrown’ jockey, the ‘local’ champion.
The arguments in favour of such a move revolve around the idea that the ‘local’ riders had been unable to compete with the star expat riders for the premiership. Upon riding out their apprentice claim, they were even allowed to retain a 2lb allowance to help them along, which, after modification to the rule, is now available until they ride their 250th winner.
The Tony Cruz Award, it is posited, drops a spotlight on the ‘locals’, gives the media and fans a focus to cheer, encourages competition between the apprentice school graduates, and might even suggest to owners and trainers that the recipient is more worthy of support.
But in attempting to engineer the above perceived positives, the HKJC has actually boxed up the local riders in a different category to their expat peers and unintentionally reinforced the perception that they are in some way less.
The real crux of it all is that Chadwick, Ho and Leung are high class jockeys with Group One wins to their names, and, as with any rider of any nationality in that bracket, their focus would naturally be to break into the top three, not win an afterthought award.
There is something uncomfortable, patronising even, about an accolade that is just for the Hong Kong ‘kids’; it is almost like receiving the Fair Play Award rather than the Player of the Season medal.
The award sits on the edge of being a colonial shibboleth and the HKJC would do well to rethink its existence: it is a crutch those jockeys do not need and a cultural millstone they might not want.
But Tony Cruz’s name does not have to be ditched with it. How fitting it would be to have the Tony Cruz trophy lifted high when a ‘homegrown’ rider is once again crowned Hong Kong’s champion jockey.
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