INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS

OPINION: The HKJC’s weighting game – Sometimes it’s healthy to stack on a couple of pounds

Michael Cox on Monday

Jockey Tony Cruz could barely find enough places to put the lead weights when Co-Tack hauled 154 pounds (70 kilograms) while being hammered by the Hong Kong Jockey Club handicapper during a three-race stretch in the 1983/84 season. 

That old racetrack adage claims that ‘weight can stop a train’ but when TP Wong’s champion won his 10th straight race with 150lbs (68kg) on his back he proved the saying wrong and set a 1600m track record. 

“He ran one minute, thirty-three-point-three seconds,” recalled a razor sharp Cruz when contacted by Asian Racing Report this week, a number fact-checked and confirmed, showing Cruz’s remarkable recall of details from his riding career. “Co-Tack was giving the runner-up 32 pounds (14.5 kg)! That is more than the entire weight spread now.” 

Co-Tack’s weight-carrying exploits put the recent news that the HKJC would raise weights by two pounds in perspective. Even though the incremental rise is a relief for jockeys in terms of health, safety and well-being, there is a school of thought that the club could have bumped-up the weights even more. 

From June 20, the top weight in Hong Kong handicaps – that being the vast majority of races – will be 135lbs (61.2kg), up from 133 (60.3kg). It’s hardly in the realm of Co-Tack carrying a back-breaking 154lbs three times, 147lbs twice and that 150lb record-breaking effort during a six-race stretch nearly 20 years ago. 

So it is with some authority that Cruz the trainer says the horses will be fine with 135 on their backs. “Two pounds more? I am not worried about that,” Cruz said.

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Joao Moreira, aboard Waikuku, edges out Zac Purton in the Stewards Cup. (Photo by HKJC)

Cruz’s anecdotal evidence was backed by data from the HKJC veterinary team, a HKJC spokesperson saying that ‘the Club does not see any risk to horse welfare from making this change.’ 

So that leaves the humans atop the horses: it might not seem much, but two pounds is set to have an impact on and off the track, from jockey health, safety and well-being, to attracting top class riders back to Sha Tin. 

Let’s start with jockey safety: Joao Moreira’s scary fall on a sweltering day at Sha Tin last weekend may not have prompted the move – the issue had ‘been raised for discussion in various meetings’ according to a club source – but the Brazilian’s ‘black out’ and crash to the turf was still a timely reminder of the bodily stress riders are under to ‘make the weight.’ 

I was too dehydrated,” Moreira told the media after the past-the-post incident. “My vision went red and dark and once the horse turned a little bit, it threw me off.” 

The HKJC has been aware of the potential long-term effects of wasting on its riders for the best part of a decade. 

It was a series of studies by leading Chinese University of Hong Kong sports scientist Dr John O’Reilly that alerted Zac Purton to the brutal affects his weight loss efforts were having on his body, with his bone density figures perhaps most alarming. 

Then there were the kidney stone attacks that landed the Australian in hospital on multiple occasions. The wake-up call prompted Purton to make radical changes to his diet and the way he approached weight loss. 

The CUHK studies have detailed both short term and potential long term effects weight loss can have in Hong Kong’s extreme conditions including the aforementioned bone health, impacts on immune function and mood. 

Of course whether the top weight is 135lbs or 140lbs (63.5kg), there will always be somebody sweating hard to scrape in, and others pushing as hard as possible to pick up the most rides. 

As Purton put it: “I have two choices: allow myself to be healthier, ride two pounds heavier and continue to give myself the same opportunities, or do I ride the same weight as I do now and give myself more opportunities?” 

Purton and two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon. (Photo by Getty Images)

As much as Purton has transformed from starving and sweating grump to a well-hydrated, wholefood-salad munching nutrition guru, it wasn’t a holistic approach to health that drove him to four titles, it was a ruthless competitiveness bordering on obsession. 

“I think I will continue to ride at 120 (54.4kg) and take the extra chances,” he said, kidney stones be damned. Sure, the two pounds could lengthen Purton’s career, but, well, you know, winners: “Two pounds in a 20-pound spread equates to five-per-cent more opportunities for me,” he said.  

The dilemma of sacrificing health for success aside, Purton believes the two-pound leeway, which allows heavyweight jockeys to be competitive at a regular weight of 122lbs (55.3kg) (from where they can claim two pounds over on a horse allotted 120lbs) will encourage some of the world’s best riders to return to Sha Tin. 

Plenty of reasons have been given for the lack of star power in the jockey ranks in recent years – from the dominance of Moreira and Purton, to political unrest in the city and intense COVID restrictions – but, according to Purton, the discomfort of getting to 120lbs is the most obvious. 

Most of the best riders in the world just can’t get down to 120lbs regularly.

“Most of the best riders in the world just can’t get down to 120lbs regularly,” Purton said, rattling off a list of heavyweights in name and stature: 

“Ryan Moore, William Buick, Hugh Bowman, James McDonald, Frankie Dettori and Christophe Soumillon … they have all ridden in Hong Kong but have decided against even short term stints in recent years. They are not going to come if they have to push to get to that weight. I think it is a big factor.”  

Purton is right – the only time Moore gets down to 122lbs is to ride an Aidan O’Brien three-year-old in a weight-for-age feature, so it is unlikely he wants to spend the winter sweating at Sha Tin to ride Class Five hacks week-in and week-out when at home he can ride 126lbs (57kg) at most meetings.  

The HKJC admitted that even though the primary reason for the change was rider welfare, it was hoped the move would help entice leading jockeys back to the city. 

“A number of overseas racing jurisdictions have, over time, raised the weights to be carried in race,” the spokesperson said. “A large difference between the minimum riding weights in Hong Kong and other major jurisdictions will have an impact on the Club’s ability to attract world-class jockeys to Hong Kong.” 

So the question is, if the Jockey Club believes it can attract a few more quality riders with a two pound rise, why not a little more? Hong Kong’s 20lbs (9.1kg) spread is one of the key factors to exciting racing, but so too are talented jockeys. 

Hong Kong is a jockeys’ jurisdiction, it is NASCAR to Europe’s Formula One, a place where the horse really isn’t the star and tight racing, bunch finishes and dynamic tactics rule. 

The new top weight of 135lbs is still short of the top weights carried in other major jurisdictions. The British Horse Racing Authority minimum is now 114lbs (51.7kg) and the maximum is a whopping 142lbs (66.7kg), up two pounds after COVID. 

Another benefit of a more significant weight rise would be to give the Jockey Club’s Apprentice School more flexibility in its recruitment of new prospects. Jockeys with previous equestrian experience like Vincent Ho are rare. You can’t take for granted that new prospects will have the same physical profile as Ho and the added flexibility around jockey weights can only help speed up the production line of ‘home-made’ talent.  

There will never be another Co-Tack but his legacy is a reminder that we shouldn’t be afraid of a few extra pounds. 

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