Horse racing has been around since the chariot race between Judah Ben Hur and Messala. Probably even earlier.
These days, this pastime has become a spectator sport where the best- the riders, the trainers, the owners of the champion horses- are worth many millions and even billions. “These days” really wasn’t that long ago.
Speak to former champion jockey Tony Cruz who rode to great success in Europe and Hong Kong, and he’ll gladly trot out the story of the Wong Tang-ping trained Co-Tack.
Co-Tack was Hong Kong’s first champion galloper. He won over many distances in the Eighties, and won every major local race even when lumping 154 pounds on a track rated as “heavy”.
Tony will mention with much regularity that despite all these wins, Co-Tack barely won HK$1m in prize money and how these days an “average champion” galloper could win this in one race.
That’s progress for you and one has to wonder just how much money the greats of the turf like Piggott, Carson, Eddery, George Moore, Steve Cauthen, Joe Mercer and others made during the height of their careers. But why go back this far? It’s hard to imagine that it’s been only eight years since the thirteen year reign as champion Hong Kong jockey of South African Douglas Whyte.
Of course, Whyte is a very rich man who’s given much to Hong Kong racing and Hong Kong giving him and his family as good as it received.
Still, it’s nowhere near as what today’s handful of world class and globe trotting riders are worth- Ryan Moore, Hugh Bowman, Christopher Lemaire, Christophe Soumillion, Frankie Dettori, William Buick, and only fairly recently added to this exclusive list, Joao Moreira, who very recently announced that he would not be renewing his license for the next Hong Kong racing season.
Instead, he would be following his dream to be granted a full-time license to ride in Japan as only the country’s third foreign jockey.
Though still to pass various tests such as being able to read and write Japanese- and adapt to the frequent “mild” earthquakes that rock the country and various rules and regulations to ensure the integrity of the sport- Joao Moreira will succeed. It’s his destiny.
Seeing how this move has caused a ripple effect of headlines- but, ironically, not in the Chinese racing media which looks at everything more inscrutability and with far more cynicism- one cannot help but think of those Whyte Years.
It must have been that other great South African rider Felix Coetzee who introduced the Durban Demon to me. Though not in Hong Kong when he first arrived here after then-SCMP racing editor Robin Parke suggested that he try his luck in this city, we eventually became friends. Good friends.
I was in the music industry and running one of the major music companies in the region whereas after watching and learning from the domination of another South African in Basil Marcus, below, and quietly building up a support system that included trainers Wong Tang-ping, David Oughton, David Hayes and the legendary Ivan Allan, Douglas Whyte came into his own.
It was a number of years of having to prove himself. Basil Marcus was a hard act to follow. Nothing was laid out for Douglas Whyte and there was no red carpet with iron clad guarantees.
Like Zac Purton, it took a few years to win over trainers and owners. And then win over the racing public in a very different Hong Kong to the one that exists today.
Those who are not Hong Kong Belongers and were not part of the evolution of this fascinating city- and its racing- will never ever understand this. They were not in Hong Kong to see the many great jockeys who rode here- Piggott, Mercer, Bartie Leisher, Brent Thomson, Swinburn, Fallon, Kinane, Beadman and others- and just how much horse racing has always gone hand in hand with the mood of the city.
As for Douglas Whyte, during his thirteen consecutive years as Champion Hong Kong Jockey the term often used to describe the rider is “consummate professional”. Sure, he was able to pick and choose his rides and would jump off one horse to get on a better one, but what’s wrong with this? File it under “Career Advancement”.
There were many many times when we would meet for a catchup, usually at the Blue Bar of the Four Seasons. The talk was about everything except horse racing- music, psychology, everything he learned about horses from Monty Roberts, life turning fifty shades of grey with my then-girlfriend, his family, a Bowie concert we attended, a new restaurant. Sometimes, he would say, “Excuse me, mate, but there’s an owner over there and I really want to ride his horse.” And off he’d go armed with the art of persuasion.
It was nothing personal, it was business and I got to know Douglas Whyte pretty well. And respect him. And go to bat for him when Knockers Anonymous would try to create dramas where there were none and attempt to detonate bridges. One doesn’t ever forget. Okay? Patience is a virtue and jealousy must be earned. Right?
Today, Douglas Whyte flies under the radar. He’s ridden 29 winners this season and without any support from his once biggest supporter in John Size. One has to wonder what’s going through his mind when seeing and reading the politics and agendas that have surfaced recently. He’s probably smiling to himself. My smile is more of a smirk.
We might not see each other these days, but we’ve spent enough time together to be able to read each other and know what the other is thinking. Douglas Whyte will always be the consummate professional. He doesn’t need me to tell him that. But it’s always good for others to be reminded. He’s a Group 1 class act.
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