New riders need a helping hand

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2008, 12:00am

Wilson's suggestion of an agent has merit in cutthroat environment

Emma-Jayne Wilson may not have troubled the scorers during her stint here, but the Canadian jockey certainly raised an interesting issue when she talked about wanting her agent if she came again.

Ever since retained riders ceased to be the engagement of choice in Hong Kong, the topic of agents or managers for jockeys has been the elephant in the room - impossible not to notice, but nobody likes to ask.

In other, busier jurisdictions jockeys may be riding five or six days a week and simply don't have time to look at myriad entries and make calls to dozens, even hundreds of trainers they might never have met. Turning up to ride work and races is their full-time occupation.

By comparison, riders here do have plenty of time and access to information to get a grasp of the limited number of horses and their abilities and requirements. But, for new jockeys trying to get a toehold, that is balanced by their unfamiliarity with the environment and the cutthroat nature of that environment.

Racing in Hong Kong sets up very differently to the places most of the jockeys come from - Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. If horses run badly for several starts there, they don't drop a class and suddenly have a chance again. They get retired, or sold, or worse.

The system isn't altogether obvious at first glance and, by the time the penny starts to drop, a jockey may be months into a contract and too late to rescue the situation.

Current riders have squatter's rights - they are on the spot, know how it works and are thus better placed to look for the best rides and the new kids are left to squabble over crumbs. It's one of the reasons why the personnel changes are so limited even over a number of years - new riders come and go quickly but the establishment of new stars happens rarely. Yes, it's always difficult in the big league. That's life.

But there are occasions where even the established riders have background help via opinions from people who study racing form and the question Wilson (pictured) has touched on is whether new riders should be forced to begin off a handicap in the strange environment with all that arrayed against them.

Historically, it simply wasn't an issue. Jockeys came to ride for a trainer and the trainer was their guide - just as sometimes a trainer now will adopt a new rider and help them over the hurdles. With respect to Dwayne Dunn - who fully earned his rewards with high quality, consistent riding - you have to wonder if he would have ever got going at all without the strong support of David Hayes, who knew his ability in Adelaide, despite that city being second-tier racing in Australia.

Likewise, Michael Rodd had John Moore to thank in part for the support that got him started and Chris Munce made good work of Douglas Whyte's offcuts for John Size to get himself started.

But if that doesn't happen, it's a difficult and frustrating place. It's hard to imagine now, but Brett Prebble's first Hong Kong stint was the epitome of that nightmare. Until that breakthrough Champions & Chater win on Precision a week before his season finished with injury in a five-horse fall, Prebble had 122 rides for two wins in 21/2 months and both winners were like most of his rides - good odds. He rode beautifully from day one but wasn't able to carry them. He didn't know the system, didn't have a sponsoring trainer and became stuck in the swirling downhill slide of poor mounts, no winners and poorer mounts.

But for the stroke of sheer luck that put him on Precision that day, he would have been lost to Hong Kong racing, instead of becoming one of its dominant players.

Culturally, the idea of jockey agents is likely seen as risky as it places another interested party between the jockey and the connections of horses. And, it goes without saying that brings betting activities onto the radar screen. Agents would need to be licensed, their betting would need to be outlawed or monitored and subject to rules and constraints.

And then there is the suitability issue - Wilson said she would like to have her Canadian agent here and that may be comfortable for her but not the ideal, as he would be just as unfamiliar with the new environment.

Yes, there are layers of difficulties associated with it, but the path ahead for securing jockeys stands at an interesting point.

Robbie Fradd will be back this Sunday to plug a gap because he fits all the criteria - he is good enough, he is known and liked by trainers and owners, he is available and he wants to be here. Not many jockeys in the world satisfy all of those criteria and the first and last often cancel each other out, given the difficulties and discouragements involved in getting established.

The fact that jockey agents have not existed in Hong Kong is, as we said earlier, linked with the former culture of stable riders, but retained jockeys are becoming rarer than singing dinosaurs and that old support structure for new jockeys is gone.

We aren't saying that having agents would be an automatic path to making every jockey competitive, it wouldn't. But it would help equip them for the battle when they land and the idea might even have relevance in assisting to build better communication between current riders and trainers across language barriers.