SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER //
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX
Jockey Kei Chiong was the talk of the town in 2016 and while injury halted her career just as quick as it had begun, she is back at the racetrack with a new outlet for her work ethic and love of horses.
Kei Chiong lives by the philosophy ‘always look forward, never back’ but when she climbs into a Hong Kong taxi she regularly hears a reminder of the past.
“I get in and the taxi driver or Uber driver will say “Hello Miss Chiong, where would you like to go today?” … It depends on the day, but sometimes I tell them, ‘that isn’t me, I just look like that jockey KK Chiong ’ … maybe I just want to get where I need to go,” she says with a laugh, saying that fame isn’t what it is all cracked up to be. “It’s not that cool, I don’t want them to know everywhere I go.”
The other place Chiong is sure to be recognised is local restaurants, where it isn’t the fellow diners that recognise her, but the waitstaff and kitchen hands. The more ‘local’ the place is, the more chance she is recognised: a traditional dai pai dong, cha chaan teng or yum cha, where the newspaper form guides are open at every other table, there is a ‘1.2’ chance she gets spotted.
“The people eating don’t know who I am, but the chefs and the staff, the people that work in those places must gamble a lot,” Chiong says. “Especially at the cha chaan teng, maybe it is traditional that they bet.”
Today, to the passing residents in a bustling upmarket mall in Kwun Tong, Chiong is just another well-dressed and bright twenty-something business woman enjoying a coffee, which of course she is.
The reason she is recognised in more ‘gritty’ locales speaks to racing’s place in working class life, but also Chiong’s one-time fame: she was, not so long ago, the poster girl of Hong Kong racing.
In 2016, the 23-year-old was riding the wave of that breakout rookie season: her popularity driven by an influx of new fans and social media buzz, her against-the-odds story and photogenic smile, but mostly by her record-setting feats.
To even call it a breakout ‘season’ is somewhat of a misnomer; it was a breakout five months. The first three months of Chiong’s Hong Kong career were a trainwreck. Chiong was the first female apprentice in 15 years. The previous, Willy Kan, had died in a 1999 race fall. It was thought that Kan’s tragic loss had made officials wary of adding another female apprentice, and Chiong’s early returns were not encouraging.
It took Chiong 25 rides to get her first winner and she had two wins in her first three months. A hard tumble on International Day sidelined her with a hand injury. Worse still, the fall was her fault, a combination of nerves and inexperience conspiring to send her hurtling to the turf. The incident occured in front of the winning post and a capacity crowd, it was as humiliating as it was harmful. She returned, but the drought continued and she had just two wins from her next 76 starts.
Then the whirlwind. During a period in which 13-time champion Douglas Whyte’s dominance ended – he went through one 85-ride stretch without a win – Chiong’s star was on the rise.
She rode 35 winners from her next 245 rides including four on one amazing afternoon at Sha Tin.
“I never imagined I would ride four winners in one day and when I rode back to the winner’s enclosure I could hear all of the crowd cheering and yelling out my name and it felt great,” she says.
“Of course it was exciting but it just made me think of all of the hard work I did to get there. I am a really hard worker, when other people rest, I go back to the gym and do it again. I thought of all of my effort that got that result.”
There is a photo of a beaming Chiong with Joao Moreira at the 2015-16 season finale in front of a packed crowd at Sha Tin. Moreira had ridden a then-record 168 wins for the season but it was Chiong who won the public vote for the most popular jockey award. She had broken the record for most wins in a season for a female jockey, was leading apprentice and won the Tony Cruz Award for leading local rider.
She was lauded internationally for her feats, collecting the People’s Choice Award at the Horse Racing Excellence Awards in Dubai and the Best Lady Apprentice Jockey at the 2017 Darley Awards in Los Angeles.
There was also a backlash. As popular as Chiong was, her rapid ascent also made her a lightning rod for criticism. There was extra scrutiny of her rides in the media, and she would often be the target of scorn from the hard-bitten old punters that packed into the seats around the parade ring.
“Hong Kong is tough, really tough,” she says. “The pressure is different to other countries, and I think there is more pressure here. In New Zealand, where I rode as an apprentice, if you ride well or you don’t, when you go to the parade ring there is nobody there abusing you.
“Those fans in Hong Kong are jeering at you, yelling ‘booo, hey, you’re a bad rider, go home and drink milk’,” she says, sharing some other unprintable, but common, Cantonese epithets. “They’d yell out stuff about my family, and ‘Did you eat breakfast today? You don’t have any power.’ Stuff like that.
“I thought it was funny. For me, it goes in one ear and out the other. But you don’t see that in other countries, it is just Hong Kong, I was ok, I just hear it and laugh and think ‘wow’.”
Since Chiong retired there hasn’t been another female rider in Hong Kong beyond Hollie Doyle’s two appearances in the International Jockeys’ Championship. She hopes to see the day when Doyle, Rachel King or Jamie Kah take a horse out into the parade ring. But she added that the next female jockey – or any other rider seeking top level success for that matter – will need a thick skin to survive.
“Sometimes they were nice to me because I was a female rider – there were fans that made little posters and came to support me – but if the fans bet all of their money and lost, I don’t think they care who you are or where you are from.”
It is almost a badge of honour that Chiong was the target of so much vitriol from the fans at times, after all, to get beaten on a favourite you have to gain the ride on one first.
The success in 2016 should have laid a platform for a long career but in many ways that celebration in front of the thousands of adoring fans that stayed back after the last race at the season finale was the peak.
Less than 18 months after that day of celebration, she quietly announced her retirement.
“For the sake of health, I decided to end my career as a jockey and explore a new life,” she said in a short statement to camera in Cantonese.
The lack of information in the months leading up to Chiong’s retirement, she had always been shielded from the press, led to speculation from the always suspicious local media. Had Chiong lost her nerve? Fallen out of love with racing? Now, speaking at length for the first time about that difficult period, the 29-year-old is matter-of-fact about the painful finger injury that led her to calling it quits.
“It started when a horse stumbled, my hand got caught in an awkward spot and I snapped the ligaments on both sides of the middle finger on my left hand,” she says.
A serious infection made the problem worse.
“You can’t use your strength you just feel weak, that finger is really important – your touch and feel on the reins – and if you don’t have the power to hold the horse, you can’t really ride with one hand.
“The infection meant I couldn’t bend my finger, how can you ride like that? It was stuck like this,” she laughs, with her middle finger sticking upwards. “I couldn’t hold the whip.You need both hands to ride.”
It was less a case of losing her nerve as it was refusing to ‘go around for riding fees’ and not fulfilling her competitive desire and meeting her own expectations.
“When it comes to competing against the top jockeys – especially mature riders like Zac Purton and Joao Moreira – if you are not 100 percent fit then there is no point riding here, you can ride one-handed if you want to just go around for the riding fee. But if you can’t win the race there is just no point. That is why I needed to move on, and do something else.”
That something else wasn’t immediately apparent for Chiong upon retirement.
“All I had dreamt of was being a champion jockey. That was my mindset, that is all I thought about, just keep winning. I never thought about retiring, I just wanted to keep riding,” she says.
“But once I accepted it was time, I was quite positive. Everything for me is about looking forward, I never regret the past, so I thought ‘I can’t become a professional jockey, what can I do?’ My heart told me, ‘I love horses, I should do something related to horses’.
“First I thought about becoming a riding teacher, or maybe going back to the Club to become an assistant trainer. Then one day I had lunch with an owner and he said “I have a permit, can you buy me a horse?”
“So I said ‘OK’, and that is how I started.”
The first horse Chiong sourced was Highly Proactive, purchased out of a Benchmark 65 at Riccarton in New Zealand, it reached a rating of 89 with four wins and has collected HK$5.5 million (US$700,000) in prizemoney. Chiong has channeled her competitive instincts and work ethic into her new vocation, and has secured five more horses, including Class 3 winners Rising From Ashes and Capital Star, plus two-time winner Sun Of Makfi.
For Chiong, racing had never been about fame, it was the love of the animal that had drawn her in. There weren’t any horses where she grew up in the concrete jungle of Tsuen Wan, but the first time she saw a horse, while on holidays in mainland China, she wanted to climb on.
“There were some pony rides, I was very small, and I begged to ride,” she says. “I wasn’t scared at all and I told the guy he didn’t need to lead me, I could handle it, and started riding around on my own. My parents were freaking out.”
Even when apprenticed in New Zealand, first under Graham Richardson, Matamata, then Allan Sharrock at New Plymouth, Chiong was drawn to the horse as much as the racing itself.
“There are no baby horses in Hong Kong,” she says. “In New Zealand, they have mares, foals and yearlings. When I was with Allan Sharrock, he has every type of horse – so I learnt about different aspects. How to wean foals, how to catch the weanlings up in the mountains. I feel like I am putting that into practice now.”
Chiong may have disappeared from public view after her five months of fame but she is happy to say that she wasn’t lost to racing.
“I am enjoying it,” Chiong says of her business, KK Horse Racing Limited. “I like seeing the process of the new horses unfold. When the new unraced horses come, the PPGs, they are not really good and watching them get better and better, and eventually win, it feels great.”
GET 'MICHAEL COX ON MONDAY' DIRECT TO YOUR INBOX