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After gaining valuable experience during his summer in the JRA, Vincent Ho says it will take a more ruthless approach to booking rides if he is to become champion jockey of Hong Kong.
Vincent Ho sits in a luxury hotel conference room, the night lights of Sapporo stretch out before him to the towering Mount Moiwa and the surrounding ranges that ring the city.
It’s an ideal spot for calm reflection, especially after completing a first-ever stint as a Japan Racing Association jockey. But even from up here, way above the street noise, the grind of a new Hong Kong season, starting September 11 at Sha Tin, looms large.
“I feel like I never left that place,” says Ho, who hadn’t left his hometown for more than three years before his off-season sojourn in Japan. “It is going to be another tough season, Hong Kong is never easy.”
Ho is referring to racing, but it holds true for Hong Kong: for the last three years life in the city hasn’t been easy, on track or off, for anybody. It has been a time of upheaval; protests and political change that parlayed into a pandemic and had a profound effect on the city’s residents.
Trainers, jockeys and track staff have had the added stress of even stricter rules than the general public but for Ho, professionally speaking, it was also a time in which his career has been transformed.
Since the start of 2019, he has won the Tony Cruz Award for leading local rider three times but, more importantly, taken a step that few HKJC-trained apprentices have taken since Cruz: he gained, and retained, regular Group 1 rides.
It was March 2019 when Ho first climbed aboard an unraced three-year-old named Golden Sixty, who has since won 21 of his 24 starts, including a 16-race winning streak, a 2020 four-year-old series clean sweep and a total of six Group 1s.
Ho hasn’t just been along for the ride on Hong Kong’s newest champ, he has won Group 1 races on three other horses; he upset Beauty Generation aboard veteran Southern Legend in the 2020 Champions Mile and caused another blowout in the 2022 Centenary Sprint Cup on Stronger.
Perhaps of most significance was the 2021 QEII Cup on Japanese raider Loves Only You for Yoshito Yahagi, a win which the trainer – who had never met Ho – was not present for due to Covid restrictions.
It was on a recent trip to visit Loves Only You at Northern Farm, while in Hokkaido, that Ho had an experience that tells you something of the new status he has climbed to as a rider, and the company he keeps these days.
“It was a huge coincidence, I was walking by and saw a yellow Lamborghini in the carpark,” Ho says. “And I knew it must have been Yahagi’s because we had talked about cars, I knew he had one, and there’s not many cars like that around.
“I was just looking at the facilities, visiting Loves Only You, he was checking his horses and we hadn’t arranged to meet up, and that was my first time meeting him.
“I met him for the first time and we had a hug, it was a little celebration more than a year in the making.”
Ho rode five winners from 40 starts during his Japanese summer, the highlight of which was victory for Yahagi aboard Kafuji Octagon in the Group 3 Leopard Stakes.
Although pleased with the results, Ho has always maintained his off-season riding – whether it be in Britain or France– was about self-improvement.
“It is important for my long term career that I get more experience riding overseas, and not just Hong Kong,” Ho says. “It is great to ride in different racecourses, I want to gain as much experience as I can.
“It has always been my goal to be a world class jockey.”
Zac Purton and Joao Moreira have won the last nine jockeys’ championships between them but are both closer to the end of their careers than the start
Ho, now 32, doesn’t believe he will simply win a championship by attrition though, and he says he would need to adopt the cut throat attitude shown by the ‘big two’ in the way they chase their rides.
When Ho’s time comes to challenge he says he will need to take the best ride possible, even if it means upsetting another trainer or owner.
“I think I ride two thirds of the Hong Kong stables, where Zac and Joao ride for nearly everybody and that is a big difference,” he says. “When I ride for a trainer I tend to get pretty focussed on them. They have supported me, so when they offer me a ride that isn’t the best I could get in a race, I take it. But if I want to be champion then I need to tell them that I am going to find another ride, but that isn’t my personality.
“My old boss Caspar (Fownes) told me that if one day I want to be champion I will need to talk to trainers about this, and that they will understand. He said ‘they will still support you’.
“We have to chase rides by ourselves in Hong Kong, anywhere else the agent can talk it through, but for us, we have to be pretty ruthless.”
Another transformation in Ho over the last three years is his physical stature. When the HKJC raised weights by two pounds late last season the option for riders was to maintain the same weight to gain more rides, or ride two pounds heavier, and perhaps reap the benefits of improved health and strength.
Ho has opted for the latter. He has added muscle and looks a healthier version of himself ahead of the season opener.
Another benefit of Ho riding 118-pounds or even 120 is that he is able to eat more like a normal person and as the interview winds down he asks for some restaurant tips.
Even though the last three years have been challenging, Ho isn’t complaining, just maintaining the same determination that has seen him climb the premiership ladder.
“It has been a tough three years,” he says. “But us local jockeys just have to keep our heads down and keep going.”
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