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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
David Morgan caught up with ex-Hong Kong jockey Wendyll Woods, who reflects on his years in the saddle, the changes he has seen in Hong Kong and the perils and positives of working with family.
Wendyll Woods, whose roots are in Ireland, England and India, rode 321 winners as a jockey in Hong Kong from the early 1980s until he retired in December 2004. His father, Barney Woods, was a successful jockey in India, where his maternal grandfather Eric Fownes was champion trainer. Woods spent much of his childhood there along with his brothers Dwayne and Sean, and his cousin Caspar Fownes, who is best known nowadays as Hong Kong’s four-time champion trainer.
Woods rode his first winner at Calcutta and was later apprenticed to Guy Harwood in England. He was still an apprentice when he relocated to Hong Kong where he rode as stable jockey for his uncle Lawrie Fownes and then for his own brother Sean who nowadays trains out of Shalfleet Stables in Newmarket.
Tell us about what you’ve been doing since you left Hong Kong and where you are these days.
Dwayne and myself own Brook Stud, about 200 acres, just outside of Newmarket, which we bought before I retired from riding. It actually dates back to something like 1924 and we’re lucky to have it. Our neighbours are the Oppenheimers, Sheikh Mohammed’s White Lodge, and Juddmonte’s Banstead Manor where Frankel and Kingman are based. We’re really sitting in the heart of very nice farmland for horses. We have our own mares that we breed, about 15 or so, and then during the winter we take in boarders from Ballylinch Stud in Ireland and a lot of French studs that send their mares to be covered at the nearby farms. I take care of the stud and the animals whereas Dwayne is the person that looks at the yearling sales side of things and he now buys for Sean.
Wendyll and Sean Woods at Nad Al Sheba in 2008. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
You retired at the age of 41, midway through the 2004-05 season. What prompted the timing of that decision?
I was riding for Sean in Hong Kong at the time but it was a little bit different to when I’d ridden for him during the Hong Kong off-season in England. The way we always worked together was that he’d tell me straight up if he thought I’d messed up, whether I was his brother or not, he’d say, ‘Look, you screwed up, this is what you’ve done.’ But in Hong Kong if things didn’t go right in a race and owners said something, family loyalty came to the fore and Sean would tell them to take their horse away. Horses are hard to come by there, so when that happened, I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve had a wonderful time here, why ruin it?’
I was very happy riding in Hong Kong, it was like playing at Manchester United, I was riding in front of 80,000 people and would have liked to have continued for a couple more years but I decided to go out while I was on top, so to speak.
Horse racing in Hong Kong had been a professional sport for only about a decade when you arrived there almost 40 years ago. Which of all the changes that happened during your time there do you believe had the biggest effect on Hong Kong racing?
The biggest changes, I think, came when they moved away from having stable jockeys and introduced what are known as Club Jockeys, brought in on a Club licence to ride for anyone they could rather than being attached to a stable. But being a Club jockey led to it becoming a very cut-throat place. Hong Kong had always had a very friendly atmosphere, a friendly place for jockeys, but all of that was left behind as competition for rides became more intense and that was a big change. Jockeys became too cautious about mixing together and it turned it into jockeys really being hard rivals.
The Woods family's Brook Stud at Newmarket. (Photo: Dwayne Woods)
Why did the Jockey Club move in that direction?
The pressure on a stable jockey was enormous because when a horse got beat, you were blamed, it was very straight up. A lot of the jockeys were losing their jobs, it kept on happening, so the Jockey Club decided to change the way things happened. When they brought in the Club Jockeys, Lawrence (Fownes) and Brian Kan were left as the only stables with a settled stable jockey.
You say it turned ‘cut-throat’, which is how several jockeys have described it over the years. How different was it in your early days there?
It was a big, big family. After a race meeting, we’d have dinner with an owner or our trainer but then we’d always meet up after as a group of jockeys. Because of the money situation, such enormous sums of money, the Jockey Club didn’t want any bad publicity so a bit of restraint then came in. But you think of Brian Taylor, he was an outstanding rider and he always put his arm around you when things went wrong. He gave you so many assurances to help you.
I went there as a baby, really, I was 19 or 20 and I was very naïve in many ways. You’d be distraught because things weren’t going right and you couldn’t ride a winner but Brian would be there for you to tell you not to worry and give some reassurance. Brian Rous was another, a great jockey around Happy Valley and Sha Tin and such a humble guy; a fellow that always had a smile on his face and would give you a helping hand.
Wendyll Woods in action in the saddle. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
What makes a good Hong Kong jockey?
Jockeys from Australia and South Africa have dominated overall and that’s because they’re taught from a young age how to ride a turning, sharp track. You have these elements of position, pace, counting a furlong, knowing exactly how fast you’re going. We’ve never been taught that in England because we race so differently. Most European jockeys jump and think the Hong Kong horses are going too fast but it’s a really tight handicap and those jockeys give away too much ground. If you do that you never make it up because you’re always turning and at Happy Valley it’s a short run-in. Sha Tin is a fair track but horses have to have gone extremely fast in front for them to come back to you.
Tony Cruz was a massive Hong Kong personality during his riding days in the 1980s and 1990s and is the only jockey raised in the city to have succeeded at the highest level overseas. Where would he rank among the best riders you competed with?
He’s up there with anyone around the world. If he was born in America, he’d have been a champion, if he was born in England, he’d have been a champion. He and Gary Moore dominated the scene back then and Tony wasn’t just good, he was an extremely good rider. He had the balance and the power, he sat very still on horses and he rode them with extreme confidence, which is everything in Hong Kong.
In England, if you’re on the best horse, nine times out of ten, even if you screw up a little bit, you win because you’re on that little bit of class. But in Hong Kong if you make a mistake, nine out of ten you’re going to lose. It’s very small margins.
Caspar Fownes, Wendyll Woods' cousin. (Photo by HKJC)
Your cousin Caspar has become one of the biggest names in Hong Kong racing but what was he like in his formative years?
We were all very close and Caspar learnt a hell of a lot off his father. He ran the yard in Hong Kong with his father but most of the stable work and the management of the horses was done by Caspar, so from a very young age, from being a teenager, he was always involved with being a trainer. He was there at evening stables, even when he was a schoolboy.
How would you sum up your years in Hong Kong?
It was a fantastic time. We had good racing and some great people to ride with. I smile a lot when I look back on my time in Hong Kong because it was great for me. I won the Stewards’ Cup there and I also rode a horse called Caracola to win the Queen Mother Memorial Cup for David Hayes. The owner, George Tong, was a very good friend of ours, he used to own Never So Bold who was champion sprinter in England. And I remember I won the Ladies’ Purse on China Cruise for Lawrence: we were given a gold medallion, a Krugerrand, as a token.
I rode there for so long but I was always excited when I went back each year and there was the excitement of what the year was going to bring: it was always a pleasure to get back to Hong Kong. It was a wonderful time and I really did enjoy every day of it.
Where are they now? Jockey Andreas Suborics
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