Respect. This is the one word that you will hear me mention frequently after Sunday’s season finale of racing at Sha Tin. It was the closing day of the Hong Kong racing season, and their end of year awards were presented between each race throughout the card.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the single unified body that runs the racing in Hong Kong. A single, leading organization is what many racing enthusiasts in the United States have recently been advocating for, and the model that the HKJC has built is one that I would not mind seeing replicated. It is ever present as a leader within the community, donating to charities and being very involved with different local organizations and foundations. Its reputation is one of top class sportsmanship and it treats its racing with no less respect. Any infraction by a racing member is swiftly and fairly resolved. It promotes a sport that beautiful and graceful, and has world-class accommodations for those that wish to participate, fans and athletes alike.
The most exciting part of the day happened before the first horses went to post. The Hong Kong Jockey Club was courteous enough to allocate time for me to sit down with one of the top local jockeys, Matthew Chadwick, to discuss some of the similarities and differences of racing in Hong Kong and the USA.
In many industries, it is thought that the older you are, the more proficient and successful you become. But don’t let Matthew Chadwick’s 21 year old age fool you. He is certainly proficient at his occupation. In early 2010, he graduated from his apprentice jockey status after only 1 year and 3 weeks, becoming the quickest to complete this achievement in the history of the HKJC. Before that, he was Champion Apprentice during the 2008/09 racing season. He is the youngest Hong Kong native jockey to win the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup, arguably the most prestigious race of the year in Hong Kong. This year, he finished the 2011/12 season 5th in the overall jockey standings.
Starting from a young age, Hong Kong “home grown” jockeys are schooled in riding and the rigors of racing, all under the umbrella of the HKJC. When they reach the point of where their talents and ambitions take them to the next stage of their careers, they enter an apprenticeship with a local trainer. For Chadwick, it was Tony Cruz and his loaded stable of top class racehorses. This model also separates itself from the US in that the jockey will remain loyal to the trainer and vice versa. It is this “master and apprentice” rapport that builds a bond and confidence level that will serve as the foundation of many jockey’s careers.
With many jockey’s coming to Hong Kong from abroad, it can be difficult and competitive to break into the racing scene as a local. Even with the growing numbers of talented expat jockeys, Chadwick believes that the bond developed between “home grown” jockeys and trainers is not something that will be swayed by increasing purses and the ever present racing politics. Despite the modernization and westernization of many other parts of the country, there is still a very prevalent aura of Chinese tradition and culture that honors the “master and apprentice” relationship.
Speaking to the day-to-day operations, one of the larger contrasts between the USA and Hong Kong racing, according the Chadwick, is the focus. This is highly consistent with the dense lifestyle in Hong Kong. From the moment the horses, trainers, and jockeys step foot on the track, there is no hiding. There is a small group of trainers and jockeys, and with only three tracks at two different racecourses, every detail is carefully observed and documented. Although this may occur at some of the prestigious tracks in the US, it is not the case for all.
Regarding training, one of the most interesting topics we did discuss was barrier trials. Common in Australia and Hong Kong, these are short “mock races” in which jockeys and horses alike can get a feel for each other by racing over short sprints usually 4 to 6 furlongs with field sizes of a half dozen or so. Aside from being used as a workout for horses, they serve as a necessary training exercise for all racing parties involved, including the non-athletic members of racing such as starting assistants and stewards. If a horse is returning from injury, or was purchased from abroad, it must first prove itself as competitive and sound to race by competing in a barrier trial. The horses are all rode handedly, and if a horse does not demonstrate the will to race or shows signs of a medical problem, the HKJC stewards reserve the right to not grant it entrance into a purse race.
Chadwick’s big break as a jockey was on his favorite horse, the Cruz trained California Memory. The first G1 win of his career came in the HKG1 Hong Kong Gold Cup in the early spring of 2011. However, his career’s biggest moment would come nearly 9 months later aboard the same mount in the international G1 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup. This win firmly established Chadwick as a top local jockey, but also as a competitor at the international level.
For the next step in his career, Chadwick’s thirst to further develop himself as a jockey will take him to the Dubai Duty Free Shregar Cup at Ascot on August 11th. He will be competing on the World Team, partnered with Tutaka Take (JPN) and Aaron Gryder (USA). It’s a small world that 2 of the top jockeys from the 2 tracks I visit the most frequently (Sha Tin and Golden Gate Fields) get to compete as teammates in upcoming races. Also attending from the USA will be Chantal Sutherland to compete on the first ever, female team. Chadwick is excited at the prospect of spending the next few weeks with trainer Charlie Hills and further developing himself as an international jockey.
When asked if he would ever see himself coming the US for a similar experience, he was not as optimistic because of the USA’s large focus on dirt racing. There will be less to gain for riding at home, where most racing occurs on the turf. Another topic briefly discussed was the potential of top Hong Kong horses ever coming to compete in the Breeder’s Cup. It does not look likely, given the proximity of the Breeder’s Cup to the Cathay Pacific International Races in Hong Kong in early December. It would difficult to convince the connections of the top horses to travel to the USA one month before attempting to seek glory in their nation’s most esteemed races.
All in all, it was a fantastic experience to get to sit down with a champion jockey at one of my favorite racing venues. I greatly respect and admire Matthew Chadwick’s passion for racing and his ever widening scope, both nationally and abroad.
Later in the day, the champions of the 2011/12 Hong Kong racing season were crowned one-by-one.
Horse of the Year: Ambitious Dragon
Most Popular Horse (voted by fans): Little Bridge
Champion Sprinter: Little Bridge
Champion Miler: Ambitious Dragon
Champion Middle-distance Horse: Ambitious Dragon
Champion Stayer: Liberator
Champion Griffin (juvenile): Amber Sky
Champion Trainer: John Size
Champion Jockey: Douglas Whyte
**I wish to give a special thank you to the hospitality of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Mr. Larry Yeung, and Matthew Chadwick for their time on a very busy, season-ending race meet.
-photo credit to the Hong Kong Jockey Club