Blake Shinn's Hong Kong journey takes a pit stop
Updated: Jul 14
The evening after Blake Shinn won the Champions & Chater Cup on Russian Emperor to become the Hong Kong season’s leading Group One jockey, he posted a photo of himself with a celebratory cigar on Instagram.
The tag line was simple - what a journey.
That journey isn’t about to end but it is having a pit stop, a break to change gear as Shinn sorts himself out mentally after the tough restrictions on jockeys during the pandemic.
“I really need to leave for a while and clear my head – even if it’s just for a short time. And I hope it is only a short time because I love the racing here, I love the competition and the constant challenge to get better,” he says.
Already recognized as one of Australia’s top jockeys, Shinn arrived in Hong Kong in August 2019 and specifically at a restaurant table opposite me, with some targets. And some huge misconceptions - not unusual for foreign jockeys used to averaging two or three wins a week at home. He was thinking 80 winners a season. I said cut that in half for a great season but reduce it more and you’ll be closer to reality.
“One of the things that can surprise you is how tough it is to ride a winner, any winner. My expectations were way off,” Shinn says now. “You can go weeks without a win here – something that would never happen in Australia – and there is nowhere to hide. You can’t go to a lower standard of competition to win and boost your confidence, you have to keep going. Hong Kong racing on TV looks a lot like Sydney or Melbourne but that mental toughness required to keep your confidence when results aren’t happening, that is hidden.”
In his first two seasons, when results fell short of expectations, Shinn was getting calls on a daily basis from Australian friends, big owners and top trainers suggesting he should return home.
“But I really wanted to do this. I still do. I’m not kidding myself that the job is complete because this season went quite well – there’s a lot more to do,” he says.
Shinn’s first season was an avalanche of frustrating seconds – he ranked fifteenth on wins but sixth on seconds – his second campaign an improvement but not where he wanted to be, despite firming up connections with Caspar Fownes and newly-returned David Hayes.
But 2021-22 has been a breakthrough year, not the least being the three Group Ones and $90 million in stakes earned by his rides – one of the best seasons of his career.
“The Group Ones were all different. The Hong Kong Sprint on Sky Field was a great race to win, an iconic race that means something around the world. And to win for Caspar was so
satisfying because he has been one of my strongest supporters, but it was hard to feel a sense of celebration,” Shinn recalls."Fellow riders had been hurt, horses had been injured, even died, because of the fall. It wasn’t a moment where I could just be happy about it.”
But then there was Russian Emperor.
Nobody is remembered for great rides that nearly won, only the rides that got results.
So, some might think that to almost beat Golden Sixty in the Derby with 300-1 chance Playa del Puente in 2020 was a greater achievement, but Shinn’s proudest ride is the 2022 Gold Cup.
“I actually got the ride in the Jockey Club Cup when I rang Douglas for Savvy Nine, who I didn’t think was a great ride in the Group 2 but I realized it was going to be a small field, so any ride was a chance to get prizemoney,” Shinn recalls. “Jerry Chau and Keith Yeung had ridden Russian Emperor in his first two starts of the campaign but Douglas was looking for someone to ride him in the Group Ones coming up and knew I have a lot of Group One experience. So, when I asked for Savvy Nine, he said, ‘I’ll ring you back.’ I think he checked with the owner then called and said ‘how about Russian Emperor instead?"
Russian Emperor got bottled up behind runners in the straight and the link nearly ended there but Shinn pleaded his case to keep the ride and Whyte agreed.
“In the Hong Kong Cup, I still didn’t get it quite right. The first time, Russian Emperor didn’t get a chance to show me his acceleration so when I let him go on international day, I went too early – he surprised me with how fast he sprinted, “ Shinn says. “I hit the front before I wanted and the Japanese horses got past me at the finish. It was a super run though and, after that, I think there was plenty of pressure behind the scenes from other jockeys wanting the ride but Douglas stuck with me.”
It was something the trainer understood too because, also behind the scenes, there had been pressure on Russian Emperor’s owner to move the horse to another yard as well. A solid third in the Stewards Cup over a distance too short followed but Shinn hugged the rail to cut through the field in that race and came to Whyte with a similar plan for the Gold Cup.
“I really have to thank Douglas. Before the race, I told him my plan to ride the rail and he totally supported me,” Shinn said. “The rain on the day helped, there was more room in the field and the horse enjoyed getting his toe in the track, but I was thrilled with how the plan worked, we saved all the ground and I think, beating a champion like Golden Sixty, that’s the ride I’m proudest of.”
The icing on the cake was the Champions & Chater, giving Russian Emperor two wins and a third in the legs of the Triple Crown. The win made Shinn the season’s leading Group One jockey and Whyte the leading Group One trainer.
“I take a lot of pride in that and especially that I helped Douglas achieve that too. I really love getting results for the people who put their faith in me,” Shinn said.
He celebrated with a quiet dinner and a casual cigar at a restaurant the next night – what a journey – but that Instagram post that has been misinterpreted.
“A lot of people think I got in trouble and fined $600,000 for breaking Covid rules because of that photo, but it’s not correct,” Shinn says. “I rode the next two meetings that week then started a suspension. The club had indicated in April to the jockeys that restaurants were ok but bars were off limits. In the month since, lot of restrictions had been dropped for the Hong Kong population in general and I made the mistake of thinking that would apply to jockeys as well. Since I was now suspended, I didn’t have to worry about my weight so I went out. When I tested positive, my Leave Home app showed I’d been to some bars and that was what really caused the problem. Bars were still off limits.”
Shinn says he did not set out to challenge the rules but he had really needed to relax.
“The big fine hurt, of course, but I can’t say I regret what happened. I needed to let my hair down or I would have jumped off the balcony,” he says. “Racing in Hong Kong is so well run and I respect the job the HKJC did to keep racing going in difficult times but sometimes I think they see the jockeys as a cog in the huge racing machine, not as people. When the story came out that I didn’t apply, and why, so many other jockeys – locals, expats, even guys I had never really spoken to that much – came up and said they felt the same way. The response was amazing – everyone felt the same way but had not said anything. Even some trainers, whose rules were not as strict as the jockeys.”
Shinn has had one of the strangest experiences of any expatriate jockey based in Hong Kong for any length of time. He arrived during the protests then a few months later the pandemic hit.
“People always talk about the great atmosphere here but, for most of my time, there have been no crowds and that made even riding a winner feel eery, especially the big ones,”
Shinn says, but riders also talk about how much Hong Kong improves them and that part of Shinn’s story has remained true. “When you get a licence for Hong Kong, you are already quite successful wherever you come from. I had won a Melbourne Cup, Golden Slipper, premierships and more than 20 Group Ones. But you realise there is another level up if you want to compete with Zac Purton and Joao Moreira.Sure, it’s hard to get good rides but, when you get them, I am talking about how strong and balanced you need to be, how your timing has to be right. Joao and Zac win a lot of races by small margins because of those things. To beat them, you have to do what they do, and, to get the techniques right, you need to be physically strong in ways you never thought about before.”
Then the bombshell. Shinn was finally making a big impact but surprised in April by announcing he had not applied to continue next season.
“I intend to come back and to do better, and soon. And there are obvious ways I can improve my results, even aside from continuing to improve my technique.,” Shinn explains. “The stewards, for example. In 3 seasons, I’ve lost 32 meetings for careless riding, that’s too much. Seventeen this season, when Moreira was suspended 8 meetings and Purton for two.
Suspensions are unforced errors – who knows what they’ve cost me? It’s hard enough to compete with these guys without giving a head start. I also think this season I developed better relationships with trainers I had not ridden a lot for – Frankie Lor, Francis Lui, Richard Gibson, I even had a winner for the legend of Hong Kong racing, Tony Cruz. Along with the other, longer good relationships I have, those can be the foundation to being one of the top riders here.” When the journey resumes.