Heavyweight title bout a stunning denouement to the Year Of Jockeys in Hong Kong
The sensational finish to the final race of the 2017-18 Hong Kong season was an appropriate punctuation mark for a year dominated by the fortunes of jockeys.
Pumping and pushing away over the final 250m of the race in a line of three contrasting styles on full display, the only three men to win the jockeys’ championship since 2001 - Zac Purton, Joao Moreira and Douglas Whyte – left an indelible image of three masters at work.
While Whyte took the race, and appeared to be undergoing something of a renaissance in the final weeks of the season, the highlight of the term has been the 10-month contest between the other two.
Purton had been flogged, numerically, by Moreira for the past three seasons but was better patronised in 2017-18, stayed largely out of the stewards’ crosshairs and quite simply rode at least as well as his arch rival to turn it all around at the end of a titanic contest that built over the months when most expected Moreira to eventually break clear and he could not.
He continued to rack up wins at a powerful rate but so did Purton and fans and commentators alike were kept on the edge of their seats as the momentum swung one way then the other in this brutal arm wrestle.By the finish, two jockeys had ridden 270 winners - a third of the season's victories - and Purton clung to a two-win edge, sealing the championship in the fourth-last race of the season.
In a blog earlier, I talked about the shift in backing from three influential stables this season – Caspar Fownes, Dennis Yip and Danny Shum appeared to move the lion’s share of their support from Moreira to Purton this season and that was a massive 56-win swing to the Australian.
In the previous season, they had provided Moreira with 37 wins and Purton 21, but in 2017-18, Moreira landed only 11 wins for the trio while Purton was up to 51 and those three trainers ranked one, two, three as Purton’s best providers.
To me, that was the key change. Moreira missed more meetings than Purton through suspension or injury – but that is not new – and it was the shift in support, and Purton grabbing that improved supply with some brilliant riding, told the story of his narrow championship win.
With no Moreira next season, as he seeks to conquer a new world in Japan, Purton will stand as the dominant force in the saddle in 2018.
The other big jockey story, with scope to even bigger yet, was Nash Rawiller’s 15-month disqualification by stewards in late April for being party to bets on his rides. In an echo of the Chris Munce case, he was picked up for questioning by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) the same day and it remains to be seen if, or when, charges will be laid that could lead to a criminal trial. For a jockey who had taken more than 18 months to finally gain acceptance as a leader in Hong Kong, and just a few months after his biggest win here in Mr Stunning's Hong Kong Sprint, it was a catastrophic turn of fortune. Rawiller is still holed up in a Hong Kong apartment awaiting more news.
The failure of the Tommy Berry-John Moore partnership was another standout in the season – a slow start and a stuttering middle before it was put out of its misery in late March, this might have brought an end to retainerships and certainly soured Berry’s previously rosy Hong Kong experience.
He decided not to return as a club rider next season, the championship second and fourth, Moreira and Rawiller respectively, won’t be here and the Licensing Committee brought its influence to bear reshaping the jockeys’ roster, too, as experience gave way to fresher faces.
Licences were not issued for Brett Prebble and Olivier Doleuze, two of the most successful riders in Hong Kong racing history, and they were, ostensibly, replaced by young South Africans, Callan Murray and Grant van Niekerk.
Doleuze’s departure leaves Hong Kong without a French rider on the starting list in September, although Alexis Badel is due from November 1.
The club has yet to officially announce the complete line-up, as Moreira’s late decision to withdraw his licence application and turn his face to Japan caught it on the wrong foot.
However, hints from club officials that a highly-achieved European-based lightweight would soon be added to the names left this writer with the distinct impression that we will be seeing “the other Brazilian” Silvestre de Sousa again in 2018-19. (There are not many top riders who qualify as lightweight these days!)
I also expect that we may see some more of Ryan Moore (pictured, right, with de Sousa) during the winter months, and not only to ride his 2018 HK Derby winner, Ping Hai Star. In the absence of Moreira, the pick of the John Size stable rides is up for grabs and the Briton has a great relationship with the champion yard, while he is guaranteed plenty of other good support for as much of his time as he is able to give.
The Tony Cruz Award gets less attention but has been a nice innovation, providing for the local riders who, realistically, are not often going to be competitive for the main title, if ever.
Derek Leung emerged as the winner for the second year running, edging out apprentice Matthew Poon by two wins, in what was a breakout year for Leung.
He has been the best local jockey for several seasons and only the extraordinary comet-like phenomenon of KK Chiong in 2015-16 prevented his clean sweep in the brief history of the Cruz Award. Not only did he ride his share of winners, but he joined Matthew Chadwick as the only local riders to win a major international in Hong Kong when Beauty Generation took the Hong Kong Mile and received a thunderous reception from parochial Sha Tin fans.
The "Poon Train" arrived to great fanfare in March, 2017, and is delivering on his promise, despite a quiet period when his allocated trainer, David Hall, went through an extreme 4-month losing streak.
Poon is 12 wins off graduating to the senior jockey ranks and, with 575 rides under his belt, he won’t get anywhere near Chadwick's graduation of 13 months and 472 rides, but he is shaping now like he is not going to be slowed by moving to the seniors.
He would already be there but for a season riddled with the type of errors that caught the stewards’ attention. Poon copped 8 careless riding bans that cost him $157,500 and 20 meetings, winning whatever award anyone wants to offer for that feat and easily heading off a past winner, Chad Schofield, who lost only 12 days this time around.
Jack Wong’s progress to the seniors had been slowed by injuries in the past 2 seasons but he finally made it in June and has looked the part recently as he makes the big leap.
The other apprentices were more problematical. Victor Wong managed 13 wins in a few months of riding but was the subject of complaints about his errant navigation from other riders, even if he escaped with only three penalties from stewards, while Dylan Mo has been sidelined with injury since March after putting together a good first half.
There is talk that the next cab off the apprentice rank will be Alfred Chan, currently riding with some success in his training stint in Adelaide, South Australia.