By Hans Ebert
While many are second guessing who will be John Size’s Go To jockey next season after Hong Kong having said sayonara to the magic and charisma of Joao Moreira, let’s not forget Tony Cruz and all the strings in his bow.
Perhaps not overlooked so much as sometimes being taken for granted as a champion trainer despite everything he’s achieved with champion horses like Bullish Luck, Egyptian Ra, California Memory and the great Silent Witness while waiting in the wings right now are Time Warp, Exultant and Pakistan Star, here’s someone both respected and feared by jockeys, because he’s been there. He set the bar. He knows the ins and outs of the game. He’s been in it and at it long enough.
Though sometimes critical of the HKJC for whatever he sees as inconsistencies or “flaws” and then rages against the machine, that’s Tony and we love him for always being himself and shooting straight from the hip.
Whatever might make him throw a wobbly now and again, Macau-born Tony Cruz is extremely proud of how Hong Kong has grown to become a global player in horse racing. He’s been a great ambassador for the sport. He’s also always been his own man and, rightly or wrongly, someone with an opinion and never afraid to speak his mind. Just ask Head of Handicapping Nigel Gray. But, at the end of it all, it’s just another day in Tonyworld.
Local racing fans know him as “Koh Tony”- a hero and the local boy who made it big. The Bruce Lee of Hong Kong racing
Known to close friends as “Putha Man”, he might have his odd moments, where he says the strangest things, and comes across as communicating with aliens with that blue tooth attached to his ear. But anyone who’s known Tony Cruz for any length of time will know that apart from having been one of the best jockeys during his time in Europe and then a champion rider in Hong Kong during his days in the saddle, when it comes to picking riders to suit his runners, he’s got it all worked out. Either that or the Martians must be whispering into his ear piece.
Just ask Douglas Whyte and Felix Coetzee who both rode for him as his stable jockey, the latter being part of the great C Team behind Hong Kong’s greatest horse in Silent Witness.
Felix “The Cat” will tell you straight about how, when he was in hospital after a fall and contemplating his future, Tony Cruz walked in unannounced and offered him the job of being his stable rider.
He’ll tell you about Tony promising him a Group 1 winner after he was fifty. He kept his word when Egyptian Ra won with “The Cat” on his back. This is the caring side of Tony and his great loyalty to those who have shared this continuing journey with him.
These days he doesn’t believe in having a stable rider. “Why do I need one, man?” he asked a couple of years ago when popped the question. “Putha, man, look at all the jockeys I can choose from- Callan, Moreira, Douglas, Matthew, the other local boys. Plus it’s much cheaper not to have a stable jockey.”
Of course, there is no more Joao Moreira to choose from the buffet table and the relationship with Matthew Chadwick seems to have unfortunately come apart at the seams, but, especially this season, has seen “Cruzy” turn more and more to Zac Purton. But does the Zac Attack have first choice when it comes to his runners? Perhaps in the Group races, but that’s it. It works out best for both.
He’s given rides to Neil Callan, legged up Tommy Berry aboard Pakistan Star after successfully trialling the enigmatic one, Vincent CY Ho, Douglas Whyte, Alberto Sanna, Matthew Poon, Alvin Ng, Karis Teetan, Keith Yeung and Derek Leung. Most have repaid the trust by booting home winners.
What’s always interesting are those riders he doesn’t use. It’s a question to keep for another day.
His riding instructions seem to have not changed since his longtime partnership with Felix Coetzee: “Have him with the leaders, man and chill. He’s trained to accelerate when you put the pedal to the metal, baby.”
Yes, there have been many times when the thought that Tony Cruz should have been a character in “Grease” has crossed this mind.
Over the past few months he’s dominated the Cup races and is going through a remarkable winning streak with a double on Sunday, this time with two of his “California” horses.
What’s also interesting is that other than Time Warp, Exultant and Pakistan Star, his winners, despite being backed, have gone off at pretty good odds. It might have to do with Tony knowing Hong Kong racing inside out and keeping things to himself and wife Pauline.
He’s all too familiar with how the gods of the green and brown lamps that light up the totalisator work and which owners to have in his stable. He’s kicked out quite a few.
As for next season, there are some budding champion gallopers in the Cruz yard- more so than in previous years, and gallopers who can compete and succeed on the world stage and not only at home. Zac Purton can’t ride them all.
It will be interesting to see how “Putha Man’s” mind works and who else will benefit from being offered some of these rides. His mind works in mysterious ways and can often be as quirky as that of Pakistan Star. That’s what makes things interesting. Plus who will be on the back of the enigmatic one when he steps out again.
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