The StatsMan

Hong Kong’s other wealth gap: the have and have nots of the jockey ranks

Is the divide between Hong Kong's top three jockeys and the rest healthy? And what can we do about it? Asks Sohil Patel in The StatsMan.

Imagine you are jockey Alex Lai and you are riding Savannah Wind in the fourth race at the National Day meeting.  Savannah Wind’s odds are more than hundred-to-one. You jump out smartly from the gates, position your mount in the first three as instructed by trainer Danny Shum and then do your best as the field turns for home.  You watch in dismay as Moreira zooms past you to win by two lengths on Smart Patch – a horse that you trialled just days earlier. A part of you feels good that you were instrumental in helping Smart Patch’s trainer Manfred Man prepare him towards victory, but a large part of you feels bummed for not being the winning rider on Smart Patch; you feel every bit sure that you could have also ridden Smart Patch to victory.  

As you come back to the unsaddling enclosure and have your post-race discussion with Savannah Wind’s trainer, Danny Shum, you also have a niggling feeling that you may not get offered the ride when Shum places heads to Happy Valley and the 1800m course next start, especially after the horse has dropped a few points at the handicap and is now nearing his winning mark.  You have every reason to believe this because this is not the first time that you have gone through this – not long ago you had watched in quiet desperation from the jockey’s room as Danny Shum trained Clement Legend won with another jockey. Had you not trialled Clement Legend just days ago before that win? 

In my assessment, Alex Lai is a competent local jockey. Lai rode his first Hong Kong winner in 2004.  He was twice champion apprentice jockey in Hong Kong.  Lai also rides trackwork for Ricky Yiu, Francis Lui, Michael Chang and his old master Peter Ho, who he had won a Group 1 race for in Japan.  Alex rides with a balanced seat and is able to ride out a horse strongly, but has not ridden a single winner from his 58 rides so far this season.

Alex Lai. Pic: Donald Lee

Alex Lai is not the only rider who has not ridden a winner yet this season.  Three other jockeys — Umberto Rispoli, Lyle Hewitson, and Ben So have also not ridden a winner from their cumulative 147 mounts that they have ridden so far.  As jockeys, by world standards, this quartet are far from the battlers the statistics pain them as. 

Rispoli is a Group 1 winner and has been riding in Hong Kong since the 2016/17 season. Hewitson is only 21 but has ridden more than 600 winners in his homeland and became the first apprentice to win the senior riding title in more than 40 years. Ben So has underrated skills – particularly his ability to whip with both hands – and was champion apprentice in 2011-12. 

The resumes read well but the current season statistics for each are ugly: Rispoli winless after 39, Hewitson is none from 51, and So is yet to win after 57 starts.  Two others –Regan Bayliss and Jack Wong have ridden only a single winner each (from a cumulative 84 mounts).

The income disparity in the riding ranks is also stark.  Jockeys bank 10% of the stakes that the winning horse gets and 5% of the stakes earned by a placed horse (2nd to 5th or 6th when applicable).  For the 2018-19 season, the total stakes won by Purton’s mounts totalled nearly HK $235 million whereas horses ridden by jockey Alvin Ng (who subsequently did not get his licensed renewed) earned just over HK $1 million.  

An important factor that generally has an impact on the odds in Hong Kong is the jockey that rides the horse. The betting public (those who are both informed and not so well informed) is easily able to differentiate horses based on their riders. Even tipsters often tip a Purton or Moreira ridden horse when they do not have a firm conviction about their top choice.

Jockeys – particularly the ‘big two’ of Moreira and Purton, have a huge influence on the market. Even a complete novice can tell who will be first and second favourite in a race on most occasions simply by looking for the names of the leading two riders. 

Joao Moreira. Pic: Donald Lee.

That means the odds offered on horses ridden by the big two are always skinnier than they would be otherwise. While I am a great fan of Moreira and Purton and have tremendous respect for their riding acumen and athleticism, I am often disappointed to see the shorter odds that my top picks run at when ridden by these top jockeys. In fact, the ideal situation for me would be to have my top pick ridden by a competent jockey (other than Moreira and Purton) and have the top two riding other horses in the same race. The data that I have analyzed over a couple of seasons suggests that in such set-ups, the odds offered on my top pick are often 12% to 18% higher than what they would be in the event that either Purton or Moreira would have been astride.

Michael Cox echoed similar themes in his 2015 article titled – “Joao Moreira phenomenon: Ryan Moore, the Jockey Challenge and how the ‘Magic’ is wearing thin for some”. He states, “For professional punters, Moreira’s overwhelming popularity with the public and the subsequent skinny prices mean they almost have to oppose him – but when he wins half the races on a card, it doesn’t leave much of a margin to play with.”

Owners spend large sums of money in purchasing a horse and on training fees and veterinary charges.  They are entitled to determine the best options for their horse to win – this includes picking the appropriate trainer and then working with that trainer to enter the horse in the optimal race (over the right course and distance) and then booking the jockey that would give their horses the best winning chance.  As such, I can understand when the owner and trainer vie to get Purton or Moreira to ride their horse. I spoke to someone close to the Hong Kong racing scene about this. He told me, “The overall picture would be incomplete without talking about the culture of the Hong Kong owners – they ALL pursue the top jocks for their horses and feel a great privilege if Purton or Moreira choose to ride. They take them out for lavish lunches, boat cruises, etc. It’s a big deal. They gain power in this regard. It’s much, much, much tougher for anyone to break in.”

Michael Cox wrote, “For it isn’t really a case of who is the best jockey –it is Moreira’s popularity with owners and trainers that makes him so hard to beat. Trainers aren’t just asking whether Moreira can ride their horse, it has gone to a new level and they are saying: “You pick the race, Joao, we will enter it so you can ride.”

This is part of the natural order of things in Hong Kong, and while it may prove frustrating for competent jockeys like Umberto Rispoli, Neil Callan, Lyle Hewitson, and (to some extent) Blake Shinn (who has ridden only two winners so far), the way the jockey bookings work in Hong Kong is just part and parcel of the jurisdiction’s quirks.

Lyle Hewitson. Pic: Donald Lee.

Success begets success, and nowhere is it more true than Hong Kong.  Jockeys that are able to put wins on the board early (and this is typically the case with Purton, Moreira and Teetan) attract the most support and are offered horses with “live chances”.  The table below shows that the average net odds that are offered on Purton’s mounts are 4.2 to 1, Moreira’s mounts offer 5.1 to 1. Compare these with the 112 to 1 offered on an average for Alex Lai’s mounts indicates that most of the horses he rides are not “live chances”.  The sole horse with single digit horse ridden by Alex Lai this season was the Danny Shum trained Happy Fun (at net odds of 4/1 which finished fourth).

 

Picking a winner is probably easier when you scan the race card for Moreira and Purton mounts, but the returns are poorer.  Bettors probably have to settle for getting anywhere between 20% to 50% lesser odds when their pick is ridden by either of the top two.  This is purely conjecture and not based on any data analysis.  

The million-dollar question though, as we don’t like to pose questions without offering at least a few possible solutions, if only to spark some debate: how does one achieve a more equitable distribution of “live chances”?  

Random Draws

The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) hosts the Longines International Jockeys’ Championship in early December.  During that night at Happy Valley, the riders for four races are determined by a random draw – this is done to provide each of the twelve competing jockeys an even chance of landing a horse with a “live chance”.  HKJC can earmark a small number of races (perhaps one race a day) and the riders could be picked from the pool of Top 12 (or Top 14) riders

“Freelance and Apprentices jockeys only” races

While this suggestion may reek of protectionism, the benefit of designating one race per meeting as “Freelance and Apprentices jockeys only” will provide an increased opportunity for the current roster of 11 local jockeys to shine and display their riding chops.  

Club appointed Jockey Agents for the 5 “most promising” riders 

Michael Cox, made a case for Jockey’s agents when he wrote for the South China Morning Post — Hong Kong’s riders want agents, but would the Jockey Club relinquish control? .   HKJC may not (yet) allow agents, but they could selectively themselves appoint jockey’s agents for the 5 “most promising” riders.  The story is that jockeys get agents for the first 6-8 weeks of their visit to Hong Kong, but after that, they are on their own. Top jockeys have their own people who help them analyze form and identify horses with winning chanced, but otherwise, they have to hustle for their own rides. 

The 5 “most promising” riders could be determined from the groups below:

  • Jockeys that have just moved to Hong Kong.  An example is South African Lye Hewitson, who took a second consecutive South African Jockeys’ premiership before coming to Hong Kong.  
  • Promising local jockeys who are coming back from injuries.  An example is Alex Lai, who was sidelined for all bar the first three meetings of the 2017/18 season and the whole of the 2018/19 season due to a badly fractured wrist suffered in a race fall
  • Jockeys with language barriers.  An example is promising Brazilian jockey Vagner Borgess, who spoke Portuguese and who came for a brief stint (which yielded no winners) at the end of the last season, had an interpreter, but could have benefitted greatly having a jockey’s agent
  • Visiting international jockeys who are given short term licenses.  For the current season, this would include Regan Bayliss, Neil Callan, Aldo Domeyer, Lyle Hewitson, Alberto Sanna, and Blake Shinn.

Trainers “assumed” retained jockeys 

The 2018-19 season saw Moreira designated as the retained rider for the John Size yard.  Even though the 2019-20 season has no such retained rider, there are several riders who ride frequently for specific trainer (think Neil Callan who has ridden a third of his mounts this season for David Ferraris).  This “assumed” retainership could be “honored” more. By that I mean, trainers providing live chances first to the “assumed” retained rider before offering it to anyone else.

So is a more even playing field really achievable and is it even healthy? And is creating parity the the role of the HKJC? Does a more equitable distribution benefit racing, punters and  competition? It does benefit diversity for its own sake, it benefits some jockeys more than others, but is it too much meddling?  This is competition after all and perhaps the law of the jungle – where “only the strong survive” – is what will create a more competitive field long term. Right now though, there are only three big lions – Purton, Moreira and Teetan – getting to eat in the jungle and they are leaving the rest to fight over scraps. 

About the author:

Sohil Patel is a professional handicapper, writer and data analyst who focuses on Hong Kong racing. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, two teenage daughters and a westie called Benter and prides himself on knowing about all kinds of data related to Hong Kong racing. Follow him on Twitter @ @SohilRacequant