Dye gets that big-time feeling
For a jockey who was a byword in Australian Group racing throughout the 1990s, Shane Dye has made little impact at the top level of the Hong Kong scene. But that is set to change on Sunday when he teams with Electronic Unicorn for the first time in the Hong Kong Gold Cup, an engagement which has given him a chance to reflect on the myriad differences between racing in Hong Kong and Australia.
'The only Group One I've won so far was the Classic Mile on Charming City, but it isn't something that I've worried about,' he says. 'There aren't so many big races here and last season the horse I was hoping to win them on, Helene Vitality, struck wet tracks that didn't suit him.'
Dye's record Down Under is sensational at the end of the business where there are a lot more heroes and a lot more zeros - on the prize-money cheques, that is. He has had his darker moments - not the least of them a Caulfield Cup ride on Veandercross that he is still frequently called on to defend almost 10 years later - but the black and white figures make a powerful case for Dye's talent at having the answers when the questions are the big-ticket variety.
With 89 Australian Group One wins, he edged ahead of Mick Dittman as the third-highest Group One winner of all time and has only Roy Higgins and George Moore ahead. During the four seasons immediately prior to leaving for Hong Kong, there were 42 Group Ones and a strike-rate in the majors running at 25 per cent as he hopped the carnival caravan around Australia.
When he surprised a few by switching base last season, Dye may have forfeited the chance to become the all-time Group One leader in Australia but he doesn't have any second thoughts. He's found a place where every race is a Group race. And not only in prize-money terms.
'It's true the prize-money here even for Class Four or Five is as big as many black-type races in Australia, but that is not the driving factor. Here just riding a winner is what's important,' Dye explains.
'I like Hong Kong, I want to stay here for a long time so I need winners. That's the only thing that will keep me here. In Australia, nobody cares how many losing rides you've had since your last win, but Hong Kong people are very wary of outs. If you won the first race one meeting, then went the next two meetings without a winner, all of a sudden your outs are up to 20 and people are noticing it. And you have only gone two meetings without a win! Every time you ride one and the 'outs' counter drops back to zero, it's a relief. And that's why every race in Hong Kong is important.'
While he dominated important racing in Australia, there was widespread, if muffled, concern at Dye's level of commitment in minor events. Many punters, trainers and even rival jockeys saw him as a rider who switched on like a spotlight for the big days but could be just average when the carnival glare was off.
For Dye, it was 'last laugh, laughs best' kind of stuff, but he has hit the theory over the fence in Hong Kong, where he is just as competitive in the Class Fives as the Group races, and has won quite a few more of them.
'If you ride in a big race at home, you know it. There's much more hype and media coverage of the single race like the Melbourne Cup or Golden Slipper. Here the coverage is constant but doesn't focus on any one race - on the television for instance they spend the same amount of time analysing the Class Fives as they do a big race,' Dye says.
'And if you go to the races in Australia with a slow ride - you're generally right. They don't win. Here the races are so open that you have to give everything you've got, try and ride everything perfectly because anything is capable of winning. You really never know.'
Australian Group One racing is almost a year-round circuit, with the only break in late June through July, and the cream of the jockeys ride the gravy train across the wide, brown land.
'I was working where and when I wanted,' Dye says. 'Melbourne for a few weeks, then back to Sydney, on to Brisbane. And because you're travelling to different places it was like a working holiday riding the best horses all the time. Here, the job is 10 months solid and doesn't let up, then you get your holiday.'
It was like the Royal tabloids at the carnivals, as Dye was always rumoured to have linked with his or that leading light for leading races. 'Most of the time, it didn't matter who trained the best horses, I was getting the ride months before they won a major race,' he says.
'Unless it was the ride of a particular stable jockey, I was riding whatever the best horses were. I was constantly on world-class horses. My job was to relax and steer them - I was a navigator - I would come to the 200 metres with them under a hold and wouldn't let them go until the last 100 metres. They did the rest. It doesn't happen that way in Hong Kong, and probably couldn't happen because there are so many top-class jockeys.'
A number of those jockeys, including Michael Kinane and Weichong Marwing, were at the front of discussions on the Electronic Unicorn ride that became vacant with Robbie Fradd's 'Operation Green Grass'-related suspension.
'I don't know why I was chosen. I suppose it didn't hurt that I ride quite a bit for John Size, but in the end, it was the owner who made the choice, not John, and I feel very honoured,' Dye says.
'My current form is pretty good and maybe that was a factor, I don't know, but I'm very pleased to be on him. I think my season is going along nicely, I've been ticking over the winners and staying in touch in the championship, but like any jockey I think I could have ridden more. I never stop watching videos and seeing how I can improve.'
Riding an odds-on favourite in a Group One this Sunday is familiar and pleasant territory, but Dye doesn't imagine for a moment that he would approach it the same way in Hong Kong. 'There are so many differences between big races in Australia and here. Big races there attract much bigger betting turnover, which they don't in Hong Kong. Many of the races in Australia are tied into stud values, which you don't have here. In weight-for-age races, you have three-year-olds with big weight advantages taking on the older stars and that can affect tactics. You have factors like the history of a race - how it is traditionally run or the types of horse that win it. They are things that might have a bearing on who or how you ride in the race. In Hong Kong, the big races are ridden very much the same way as the normal races.'
And the 'big horse' limelight that nurtured the career of the former whiz-kid New Zealand apprentice in his first adopted home certainly won't faze him in the Gold Cup. 'I do miss consistently riding top horses, so I'm excited to be on Electronic Unicorn and if he produces what he can then he should win,' Dye says.
'He has been beaten before at 2,000 metres, but he probably wasn't in the kind of form that he is now. He is world class. He travels easily, then really quickens, and that's the difference. The good horse, the horse in the next bracket down, will travel, then find a length when you want it. The likes of Electronic Unicorn and Fairy King Prawn find four and they find it quick.'