• Alan Aitken

The Day of the Demon is over - or has just begun again


As July, 2014 opened, I had been working in Hong Kong as a racing journalist for 13 years and I had only seen one man crowned champion jockey. The Durban Demon.

When I arrived in town, Whyte and fellow South African and incumbent champion, Robbie Fradd, were punching it out in a see-sawing duel with several months left in it.

The first winner I saw Whyte ride live was named I Deliver, a pointer to the years ahead, but there was another early win that made it clear I was watching something a bit special.

In a Class 5 at Happy Valley - the horse was no star and his name escapes me - I strongly queried Whyte's mount at short odds from gate 11 before seeing something I had not seen much of in Australia. The Demon came out negatively, dashed across the back of the field at the 1200m start to find the fence, railed through to three back along the rail into the back straight, then another place closer around the the home turn, came around one horse and won by a head.

There was no other way he could have won the race on quite an ordinary neddy, and that was an enduring memory of what a dashing rider Whyte could be, even if his critics would say that particular Douglas Whyte has not always been present more recently.

Ultimately, Whyte drew off to win that first season by a very comfortable 26 victories to take his first Hong Kong championship in his fifth season here and begin one of the great sporting reigns of the world, eclipsed in modern horseracing by only A P McCoy's unbeaten string of 20 UK jumping titles.

The Durban Demon celebrates his final jockeys' title win in 2013

In July, 2014, that was all about to change as the race had come down to Zac Purton and the newcomer, Joao Moreira. The king was about to lose his crown and the moment was worthy of the well-used tag: the end of an era.

But not more so than the announcement on Tuesday morning that Whyte would retire from riding altogether and join the ranks of our trainers from next season.

Timing is everything and sometimes perfect timing happens by accident.

There had been discussions going on less than 12 months ago about Whyte hanging up his saddle to become John Moore's assistant overseeing his Conghua stables this season, with a likely transition to a full licence when Moore retires in a couple of years. It seemed a good move to many - a couple of years of time to serve before seamlessly moving to the next phase of his career in horseracing.

The local news media was abuzz with the story but Whyte wasn't sold on it, and time has shown his judgement call on the strength of that opportunity was right. The numbers show that Moore has not yet embraced the Conghua centre wholeheartedly in the way that John Size, Danny Shum or Me Tsui has done: he has had only 25 runners through Conghua - fewer than all but Tony Cruz and Paul O'Sullivan - and only Moore and O'Sullivan have still to produce a winner from Conghua. It would have sent Whyte down a cul de sac in his career, that was his concern and, as it turned out, it might have denied him a better opportunity that no-one foresaw at that point.

He applied to ride again this season, the bounce of the ball looked to have gone his way with Moreira's eleventh-hour decision to switch to Japan. It seemed Whyte would be one of the beneficiaries and the spring was back in Dougie's step.

That apparent positive later reversed, of course, but, in the meantime, Michael Freedman's decision to leave after little more than a season not only opened up a vacancy for an expatriate trainer, but put some pressure on the Jockey Club. Coming fast on the heels of Sean Woods and Andreas Schutz being shown the door for underperformance, Freedman's rapid exit meant the club needed a successful choice for the next expat and Whyte has been the equivalent of a snooker player putting the cue ball hard against the cushion.

It's a safe and sensible play - the Durban Demon has more than enough contacts to fill a stable and nobody doubts he has the skills and focus to make it work.

The history of top jockeys turning to the, frankly, tougher life of a trainer has seen many more flops than high fives and, quite often, it has been second rate (or worse) jockeys who have become the successful trainers.

Tony Cruz, left, with Whyte at the title presentations for the 2005 champions, is a rarity. (Coincidentally, he is also the last rider the Jockey Club allowed to make the swap straight over from Hong Kong jockey to Hong Kong trainer, as Whyte will do after he finishes up in February.)

It's a different life, a different discipline, a more aerobic style of event, stretched out over time and patience than the anaerobic skills of a jockey, who jumps on and gets the job done in the moment, perhaps never to see that horse again. The trainer's role with a horse doesn't end with a race, or even a campaign, so it's more of a thinking, planning role than a jockey's involvement - even jockeys usually acknowledge that as a blessing of their craft. They can walk away from a disappointment - the horse is still staring out of his box at the trainer the next morning.

Yet, when anyone looks at Whyte's riding career and puts the credit for some or even many wins down to the talents of great trainers with whom he has linked, most notably of course the Dream Team with John Size from 2004 to 2013, they're missing something.

Whyte was champion jockey in parallel with the first three titles won by Size, but had only 9 rides for him in those years for two wins - one a random draw in the International Jockeys' Championship. He was very much a freelance rider, who rode winners for everyone and was having as much to do with the training and placement of many of his mounts as the trainers in whose names they ran.

So, sure, it's a new game when your name is on the ticket but train horses?

Whyte has probably been doing a bit of that for many years and I'd love a dollar for every time he has riddena winner and the trainer has highlighted some gear, distance or tactical change that Whyte came up with which laid the platform for the win. Many's the Hong Kong trainer who has uttered the words: if Douglas goes training, we all have something to be worried about.

I've seen Whyte do some great things as a jockey. And not just the first century of winners achieved in Hong Kong, and not just that string of title wins, not just a pile of 1,813 victories so far that is going to stand as the record for many years. Sure, the numbers are amazing - Whyte to this point has won $HK 1.585 billion in stakemoney here and that's an average of $HK 129,720 per ride.

He has had six wins on a day in Hong Kong once, five winners five times, four wins on 42 occasions and has won 1,044 races just in doubles and trebles, with 300 pairs and 148 three-timers.

But there have been other things that won't appear in his record as anything but a simple 'one' in the results. Like the day at Sha Tin when he threw a favourite over the line in a driving finish, despite the bridle having all but come off the horse mid-race and it hung from the horse's ear for the final 800m of the event. The punters who cheered him home - and may have been booing but for a photo nod - never even knew.

Whyte is a horse obsessive as much as a jockey. Not every great jockey would have spent the time that he and his friend, another former great Felix Coetzee, took during Hong Kong off-seasons to attend summer courses run by Monty "The Horse Whisperer" Roberts in America, where the study was in understanding the animal without any reference to racing them.

And, perhaps paradoxically, nowhere did that horse obsession show more than in his public post-race analysis. Whyte always had things to say, and for others to take on board, after a race.

And while that is true is most of the best jockeys - you can learn from them - it was different with the Demon. I recall saying to him one day some time after he was dethroned that I was sorry he had been deposed, not for his sake but for more selfish reasons. After G1 wins, most jockeys spill out words the way marbles fall down stairs but they roll their eyes when you ask them for a quote about a Class 5 winner - there was still Class 6 when I first encountered Whyte's - or the other more modest victors that are part and parcel of the game.

High grade or the lowest, Whyte always had something to say about how the horse's training, tactics or other requirements had been approached that paved the way to the win. Post-race for a journalist, there has been nobody better and that speaks to how much Whyte does think about what lies behind the numbers that go up after the race, above and beyond his own performance.

That will take him a long way as a trainer, as will an extroardinary mental toughness, brilliant work ethic and his political nous. Not to mention his hunger - once again, it's something that retired champion jockeys often lack as trainers but Whyte won't.

When Brett Prebble, himself no shrinking violet in a competitive situation, was runner-up after an epic jockeys' title race one year, he shook his head at Whyte's committment in the fierce battle: "I've never seen anyone want something that much."

His Twitter profile photo tells you that without a word - he looks like a great white shark that just picked up a trace of blood in the water. Yes, Whyte giving away riding next month to take up training really will be the end of an era, but it might just be the start of one too.




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