Hong KongThe Column: Michael Cox

THE COLUMN: HKJC should play hard ball and limit Derby pinch-hitters

With the quality of the HKJC roster hitting historic lows, it's time to limit visiting jockeys flying in for top rides in Hong Kong Derby and other big races

By Michael Cox

So how could stopping the world’s best jockey from riding in Hong Kong on a single-day licence make the jockey ranks stronger? The point is the Jockey Club should be aiming to have jockeys like Ryan Moore based at Sha Tin more often and allowing them to swoop in and win the biggest races means there is little motivation for them to stay longer.

Moore has been booked to ride More Than This in the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 29, the latest – and most likely not the last big name that will be flown in to take a ride in the four-year-old series that continues with the Classic Cup on February 23 and the Hong Kong Derby on March 22.

These types of pinch-hitter bookings have been successful in recent years and Moore himself has a Derby win aboard Ping Hai Star in 2017 to his credit.

In 2014 Tommy Berry won the Classic Cup and Derby on Designs On Rome as a gun-for-hire, two years later Hugh Bowman was one of six jockeys flown in for the day when he won the race on Werther and he did it again last year on Furore.

So how would a ban on allowing overseas jockey bookings for the four-year-old series create a stronger jockey roster?

Let’s assume the Jockey Club is aiming to have the best possible jockeys competing for as many meetings as possible – and that should be the aim given the prize money, lifestyle and perks that come with riding in Hong Kong.

When Moore and Bowman can simply cherry pick their way to the best races in Hong Kong without putting in the week-to-week grind, then why would they commit to riding on even a short-term license?

Berry’s success as big race rider on speed dial for John Moore, riding mostly on single day visits between 2013 and 2016, and then a disastrous tenure as stable jockey for the same trainer in 2017-18, stands as a cautionary tale.

… perhaps rewarding those who are willing to make a commitment by protecting big race rides would entice more big name jockeys to take full-time contracts or stay though winter.

Berry was 21 when he won on his first day of riding at Sha Tin on a fly-in mission for Moore aboard Military Attack in the 2013 QEII Cup.

From then on he was the go-to man for Moore when the big race specialist had multiple runners in big races – which was often. There was more success on Military Attack, Designs On Rome and later two top-level wins on Helene Paragon.

Berry’s failure as stable jockey was due to a bad season from Moore but it also meant the jockey lost his allure somewhat, so why would Moore and Bowman risk losing their own status as the current jockeys that come first to mind when an owner has a big race contender?

Bowman rode 14 winners in a six-week stint five seasons ago but since then has been based in Australia. Flying in for big races he has won a Derby and two more G1s on Werther and a Chairman’s Sprint Prize on G1 Lucky Bubbles to go with the dual-success on Furore.

Let’s keep Hong Kong International Races and Champions Day open to visitors – after all – they are truly international events, but perhaps a rule could be made that to qualify to ride in a feature race in Hong Kong, a jockey has to have ridden or be committed to a license for at least one month in the current racing season.

Hugh Bowman is elated after winning the 2019 Hong Kong Derby on Furore.

Japan is now the destination of choice for the types of jockeys Hong Kong used to attract during winter months – Christophe Soumillon, Oisin Murphy and William Buick – but it is interesting to note that Japan doesn’t allow one-off visits.

Fans of Japanese racing will point out that Damian Lane was granted a one-day license to ride Lys Gracieux in the Arima Kinen, but there was due to an application citing Lane’s strong association with the mare (he had won two G1s on her already).

In the same way, if a jockey was to ride a Derby runner earlier in the season during a short term stint – like Ryan Moore when winning the 2016 Classic Mile and Classic Cup on Sun Jewellery – then they should be able to return to ride the same horse in Derby.

That jockeys like Moore, Bowman, Buick and Soumillon are less likely to take up six-week licenses in Hong Kong isn’t even the most important argument against allowing jockeys to fly-in for a single race at Sha Tin. The strongest argument is a simple case of fairness.

What about those who work the week-to-week grind like Karis Teetan?  He has established himself as the number three jockey in Hong Kong but has found himself “jocked-off” More Than This for Moore. Unfortunately for Teetan, this isn’t a new phenomenon, he has been bumped from a number of top class horses in favour of pinch hitters. The natural lightweight rode Able Friend and Designs On Rome to Class Two wins before those two horses swept through the 2014 four-year-old series with different jockeys aboard.

Tommy Berry celebrates after winning the Hong Kong Derby on Designs On Rome.

With the strength of the Hong Kong Jockey Club roster at what is arguably a historic low this century and jockeys citing “a lack of loyalty” as a reason to leave, perhaps rewarding those who are willing to make a commitment by protecting big race rides would entice more big name jockeys to take full-time jockeys or stay through winter.

As well as restrictions on who can come into ride in big races in Hong Kong, the restrictions on Hong Kong jockeys heading abroad to take feature race rides must be loosened.

The guidelines on which races jockeys can head overseas for are rather convoluted – but the IFHA’s top 100 races are included. It’s an arbitrary list though really, with plenty of room for Jockey Club

The races on the IFHA list don’t include many races that jockeys like Teetan or locals like Vincent Ho or Derek Leung would be vying for top rides in like the recent Singapore Gold Cup, at a venue less than 90 minutes plane ride away.

It is hypocritical have the Hong Kong Derby – a race not even close to being in the world’s top 100 races – to be awash with foreign jockeys, but not allow locals who are stuck in the Sha Tin jockeys room on the biggest day, a chance to show their wares overseas.

Of course none of these measures address the biggest concern for visiting jockeys when it comes time to weigh up a riding stint;  a toxic culture and overbearing control by officials – but these moves are a start.

The aim is a return to the days when the best and brightest stars of world racing not only came to Sha Tin – they stayed – and maybe playing hard ball with Moore would entice him to make Hong Kong home for winter.

 

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