INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS

Win Chung, Sherie Kong and the story of Hong Kong racing’s female pioneers

Leading Australian jockey Jamie Kah’s booking for Voyage Bubble in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile has made the headlines this week, more than 28 years after a woman first won a race in Hong Kong.

From left: Julie Krone, Sherie Kong, Win Chung and Donna Barton at Ladies Purse day, 1996. (Photo supplied)

Win Chung Lai-Fong is an inconspicuous figure at Sha Tin. She goes about her tasks wearing the blue uniform of a Hong Kong Jockey Club stable assistant and has worked for trainer Me Tsui for the past eight years. When her daily duties are complete, she heads to her home, which she shares with her husband, a practice manager in the Club’s veterinary department.   

There is much value in Chung’s work, and at the core of it all is her love for the horses, but she is much more than she appears to be. She is a living piece of Hong Kong racing history and an important one at that: she is a history maker, in fact.

Her name is little known outside of her home city and not mentioned enough within it. She made her indelible mark on September 24, 1994 in the Hornell Hall Handicap, a 1000-metre dash down the Sha Tin straight. Chung was an apprentice jockey, riding a gelding trained by the late Bruce Hutchison named Free Zone.

The white-faced chestnut was, like its rider, unconsidered on the day: a 35-1 chance in the field of 11 despite having won its previous start, albeit six months earlier. Back then, punters considered a girl in the saddle to be a red flag, after all, no female had won a race in Hong Kong in the nine months since Sherie Kong became the first to try in December 1993 and placed last of eight aboard Jade Signet.

In an open Class 2 contest it was Fukien Boy, the mount of champion jockey Basil Marcus, that went off a weak favourite, but as the runners entered the final furlong, those punters began to rue the prejudice in their selection strategy. Free Zone was closing with smooth momentum under Chung’s basic hands and heels, and passed the favourite to win by a head.

“There wasn’t any expectation on me at all,” Chung recalls. “Everyone was surprised.”

That included herself. There was no outward emotion on the 19-year-old’s face as she crossed the line, both hands holding the reins.

“I was in shock,” she says. “I was very excited, happy and satisfied, I felt successful. As I passed the finish line, I looked left and right; the first thought I had was not that I was the first woman to win a race, but in that moment, it was just the excitement that I had won a race.”

A beaming grin broke out at the pull-up as the likes of a smiling John Marshall and Darren Gauci offered their congratulations, and the wider importance began to sink in.

“Sherie had started racing three months earlier than me and she had a lot of placed horses but never a winner. I remember I had only 12 races and then I got the winner so it really was a surprise to be the first female to win in Hong Kong,” she says.

Kong says it was “fair” that Chung had the first winner given that she herself had the first ride and went on to be the first woman to ride a double.

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Sherie Kong. (Photo supplied)

Hong Kong racegoers can be brutal in their vocal displeasure when their bets yield no return, but they also appreciate when something special has transpired. This time the crowd offered warm applause for the local girl; recognition that a barrier had been moved, if not quite broken down altogether.

Chung and Kong had been recruited in a concerted drive by the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club to move with the times and train female apprentices.

Chung had not even touched a horse before: she was raised in the village of Wu Kai Sha, across the Shing Mun River from Sha Tin, between Ma On Shan and Sai Kung; her father worked construction and her mother was a housewife.

Kong is the daughter of a full Jockey Club member and that gave her the opportunity to ride at the HKJC’s exclusive Beas River equestrian stables from the age of 13, a rare privilege in late-1980s Hong Kong. Her first husband was the French jockey Eric Legrix and she has remained in the spotlight through her media work and being featured in lifestyle magazines.

Chung was apprenticed to David Oughton and Kong to Patrick Biancone.

“After I won that race some trainers were more willing to give a ride to us. It was a good change; it gave us more chances,” Chung says.

Kong recalls that being attached to 60-horse stables afforded the young women opportunities to participate in races, but says that it was tough gaining outside rides.

“Still, some local trainers supported us as time went on,” Kong says. “I got the opportunity to ride for Wong Tang-ping’s stable, and my first winner was for a local trainer, Alex Wong.”

Chung’s success was a breakthrough historically but it did not open the flood gates: it was another year before Kong’s first win came, on Niagara Falls, but slowly perceptions were changing as Chung’s and Wong’s abilities improved with experience.

Sherie Kong rides her first winner, Niagara Falls, on October 14, 1995. (Photo supplied)

In December 1995 Mick Kinane, at that time first jockey to the Oughton stable, told Hong Kong racing reporter Robin Parke that in the space of a year Chung had matured from being ‘the little girl in the corner who rode a couple in work’ and struggled to stop them ‘taking off with her’, to an apprentice with confidence and ‘more than worth her ten-pound claim’. Kinane also noted her ‘good hands’ and a ‘kind’ style that encouraged horses to ‘run along for her.’

Kong was known for being able to position a horse intelligently in a race and while both riders were considered to be lacking in strength at the finish, observers at the time noted improvement as they matured.  

Kong remembers a sense of “love” and “support” from the sport’s participants, including the male jockeys, when she went out for her own historic first ride on Jade Signet.

“The day I made history, there was a feeling that everyone would take care of the female jockey because it was time for Hong Kong to make this change,” Kong says. “In America and in Europe they already had women jockeys and we had French, English, Australian and South African jockeys and they shared their experiences in teaching us.

“If you made a mistake the other jockeys would come to you and let you know you shouldn’t do that, but in doing it they’d try to explain, they didn’t come to yell at you. This was the opportunity that a girl had then, and for a boy it was different.”

A lot has changed in the three decades since September 1994. Back then Hong Kong was heading into the final stage of a handover from British governance to Chinese ownership; it was a place enwrapped in change, politically, socially, even culturally. As the 1990s advanced, Asia’s world city was touched by the west’s zeitgeist, and that included the rising Generation X-ers rallying to the ‘Girl Power’ call of the time.

The HKJC recruited other female apprentices to follow Kong and Chung, the likes of Carol Yu and the late Willy Kan, the first woman to ride in the Hong Kong Derby but killed horribly in a race fall at Sha Tin in March 1999. Through the mid-to-late 1990s the Club invited female stars from overseas to ride at the annual Ladies’ Purse fixture, including the Belmont Stakes winning rider Julie Krone and her fellow American Donna Barton.

Julie Krone wins the 1993 Belmont Stakes on Colonial Affair. (Photo by Timothy A. Clary)

But in some ways, little has altered. The Hong Kong roster has had no female rider since Kei Chiong’s two-year career ended in 2017. Chiong was the first local female jockey for 15 years; and the only expat woman ever granted a jockey licence beyond a one-off fly-in was Emma Jayne-Wilson, who arrived in early 2008 but pulled the plug on her stay just weeks later.

In December 2022, the Melbourne champion Jamie Kah and British star Hollie Doyle both showed the Hong Kong crowd – again, in Doyle’s case – at the International Jockeys Championship at Happy Valley that distinguishing between male and female in the context of race riding is a shibboleth that needs to be canned. Both are top-rung riders and each rode a winner that night at the Valley.

“When people ask the female jockey questions, we don’t really get asked those anymore in Australia, so I think it’s a special thing to come here and represent Australia in a place where it isn’t that regular to see females ride here, if at all, really,” Kah told Asian Racing Report during that Hong Kong visit.

“I hope we get out of that first female to do this and first female to do that way of looking at things, in this day and age; really that’s not something that’s real special to me. There’s a balance to it because we’re still proud to do this and be a role model and that kind of thing, but sooner or later it has to be just jockeys and that’s it.”  

Hollie Doyle became the first woman in history to win a leg of the International Jockeys’ Championship aboard Harmony N Blessed in 2020. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Jamie Kah with Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges in December 2022. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Chung holds the same view.

“Being a jockey, to me, the gender, male or female, there is no difference,” she says. “There are certain things, like a man might be stronger than a woman but a woman brings other elements. It’s not like driving a car, it is an animal and sometimes you can’t use great force to make the horse win, it’s a relationship, a balance.”

Kong hopes to see female jockeys back on the Hong Kong scene day-to-day, although acknowledges that in the case of a female apprentice, like any apprentice, they must meet the tough criteria set out by the HKJC and meet high standards in their race riding ability.

“Hong Kong is international but what is international? You have riders from different countries but it’s only fair you have a female jockey as part of that. If Hong Kong can have some female jockeys come to ride, I think they can be more popular,” she says

“Even if you have a female jockey coming in for two or three months it can make a difference, they can be role models.”

Kah said that she had been approached by the HKJC to ride on a contract but decided not to take up the offer due to a reluctance to leave her horses and farm at that time. But, she admitted, “I do really want to come here and ride.”

Jamie Kah and Annabel Neasham celebrate another Group 1 for Zaaki. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

The HKJC currently has apprentices Britney Wong and Nichola Yuen engaged in their overseas race-riding experience in South Australia, so it is continuing to make a significant investment in that area. Whether either can progress from Murray Bridge and Gawler to Happy Valley remains to be seen, but the Club is affording them the opportunity.

Yet still the HKJC seems not to have pushed hard enough to attract a top female expat rider: as well as Kah and Doyle, Rachel King is elite in Sydney, one of the toughest circuits in the world, even the experienced Chantal Sutherland is still riding at a high level in North America and there are others that would fit the bill, comparable with some of the male jockeys the HKJC has recruited in the past decade. Kah’s fly-in booking for the 2023 Classic Mile shows that Hong Kong’s owners are more interested in a rider’s ability to win than their gender, and the same can be said for the punters in the stands nowadays. 

Meanwhile, Japan has upped its game. Doyle recently completed a winter contract and the authorities are committed to developing female apprentices. In mid-January the JRA for the first time held a race that featured four female jockeys. It was won by its star apprentice from last season Seina Imamura, who is one of only five apprentices all-time to have ridden 50 winners in a campaign.  

Seina Imamura scores on Toho Dias at Hanshin in June 2022. (Photo by Shuhei Okada).

Even Saudi Arabia of all places is conscious that it should at least be putting forward the right look, with the unveiling of the first four riders locked in for its own international jockeys challenge in February: alongside Frankie Dettori and Joao Moreira appeared the names of Sutherland and last year’s winner, the Australian Caitlin Jones.

Times have changed in Hong Kong but change is still needed. Regular female participation in the jockeys’ room is long overdue again. 

More than 28 years on from Win Chung’s first of her 11 career wins there are still too many potential ‘firsts’ for women to get through in Hong Kong racing before ‘men’ and ‘women’ can climb on a horse and be referred to simply as ‘jockeys’.

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