Club should hold on to young jockeys
Lance O'Sullivan's appearance yesterday morning at Sha Tin to have a chat with the current crop of apprentice riders, including the slightly troubled Alvin Ng Ka-chun, was doubtless a welcome addition to their general education on race riding.
O'Sullivan was a multiple jockey championship winner as one of the best ever produced in New Zealand, was highly successful riding in Australia and Hong Kong as well, and has plenty of experience dealing with the schooling of young jockeys through the training scheme in his homeland.
He was able to say a few words to help the young riders shape their ideas, and able to run through some of Ng's recent errors that have attracted suspensions and discuss with him whatever it was he was thinking at that moment.
But, as beneficial as such cameos by high profile achievers like O'Sullivan can be, the difficulties being experienced by Ng, and before him by Keith Yeung Ming-lun and others, are not going away like that or even with occasional tutoring by the top active jockeys.
The club is expected to find a mentor for Ng, to help him over the current speed bump in his career, just as Douglas Whyte was credited with assisting Yeung last season. Still, it is not a permanent solution.
As much as the top seniors probably feel a duty, even a pleasure to pass something on to the next generation - and for their own safety in races there is an incentive to do so - when all is said and done, these riders are also their competitors.
Does an ultra-competitive Whyte or Brett Prebble really want to get some kid up to speed so that he can beat him a little more often?
What happens to these young jockeys, when they find themselves suspended as often as they are not, is something that happens to most jockeys at some stage of their development. Part of the regular growing pains involved in becoming a competent senior jockey anywhere, and the pains are even more pronounced in this environment with additional pressures due to the closed and betting-oriented nature of the place.
Even senior jockeys are under more pressure to win on a particular day here as many of the limited horses, and that's most of them, will only get their best opportunity once, twice, maybe three times a season - right draw, right handicap, right pace, right course and conditions. All the moons align and the rider is expected to make it happen, often with owners betting plenty to support their horse.
The top expatriate jockeys have long experience to draw on when placed under that pressure - the juniors don't and that's when the likes of Yeung and Ng find themselves losing their rudder and making the errors that land them in trouble so frequently.
There is some feeling within the walls at Sports Road that some of these added pressures on the juniors come as a result of their being allocated to individual stables, where expectations build over the days and weeks leading up to a horse's big moment and the jockey is privy to that expectation. Then there's the murky politics of whether a trainer allows an apprentice to take an outside ride at all, especially to oppose a stable horse that is expected to win.
And, on the back of that feeling at the Jockey Club that these things are clear negative pressures on young jockeys, comes the notion that perhaps the allocated trainers system is a dinosaur, with trainers putting extra pressure on apprentices, hungrily taking the money that they earn through them but spending little time and energy in improving them.
Years ago, a large proportion of the jockeys based in Hong Kong were connected to individual stables but that system has practically disappeared and riders are now virtually all club-retained jockeys - even if, yes, a number of them have a close affinity with particular yards.
The actual stable-retained rider has become a rare bird and maybe the stable-retained apprentice should go the same way.
So much of the responsibility for apprentice jockeys is already taken up by the Jockey Club, that it would seem a worthwhile idea that the club keeps the role, even after the riders return from overseas training to start riding here.
The politics of ride bookings would be removed and, since the club should be neutral on whether a horse wins or loses, there would not be the same pressure on the result.
Of course, trainers and owners would still have higher expectations on one day than the next but, if they are unhappy with a ride from a club apprentice, the jockey wouldn't necessarily have to wake up still living with it the next day.
If, for example, a trainer loses a horse now because the owner was unhappy with a bad ride from the stable apprentice, that's a source of friction in the apprentice's daily life. So too, if the junior bobs up at long odds to beat his allocated trainer's good thing.
They could be allocated to the club instead of a trainer and remove some unnecessary added pressures on top of those inherent in learning a demanding and dangerous trade.