Whyte gives naysayers three lashings of humble pie
Last week Douglas Whyte was a washed-up has-been with diminished skills, the aura of his deadly “Dream Team” combination with master trainer John Size had lost its lustre, and an era had seemingly come to an end. This dramatic downward spiral all transpired in the space of a single off-season, of course.
At least this is what the Chinese columnists would have had you believe, before order was restored with a Dream Team-inspired treble at Sha Tin on Sunday. It seems reports of Dougie’s demise as a Jockeys’ Championship-winning force had been grossly exaggerated.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the local media landscape is that opinion pieces are often written under an alias – shooting from the hip under a veil of anonymity and with writers often taking on different names – to fire off barbs at the Hong Kong Jockey Club or an individual, and fabricating or expanding on scurrilous rumours.
Mysterious columnists “Mr Vitality”, “Joe” and my favourite “Indifferent Observer” (a clearly reluctant writer), all love to take pot shots at soft targets from their keyboards. Sometimes, a previously unheard of scribe even comes out of the woodwork, for a one-off shot at ruffling feathers and then disappears just as quickly.
Whyte wasn’t the only jockey to receive their wrath last week. Apprentice Vincent Ho Chak-yiu only returned at the start of this season after recovering from a shocking fall and resulting surgery from complications in his badly broken arm. Lost his nerve, they said, and weak in a finish. The kid is 22, has been thrust straight back into the most competitive race riding environment in the world – there’s no provincial circuit here – and showing an enormous amount of courage to return, so it was great to see him slap them back with a well-judged front-running ride on Double Dragon.
One man who wasn’t hiding behind a pen name was The Sun’s Carlos Wu, when he declared the 12-time defending champ Whyte vulnerable, after the Durban Demon had gone winless at the first two meetings. Wu wondered aloud whether the 40-year-old still had the hunger to hold off emerging challenger Zac Purton.
After all, Whyte had never gone without a winner at his first two days of riding at the start of a term during his long reign at the top.
But now he has hit back, we will get the self-congratulatory pieces stating how, motivated by the stinging criticism, the South African lifted his game for the time-honoured third meeting of the season.
We can just imagine it: Whyte, sitting alone and staring intensely at Wu’s press clippings plastered across his bedroom wall, muttering to himself and wringing his hands, as he psyches himself up for the performance of a lifetime, just to prove his despised critic wrong.
More likely he was doing what he has been doing for most of his adult life, out-working everyone else in every sense – first at the track in the mornings and last to leave, watching race videos and working the phones like a possessed telemarketer, trying to get on the next winner. And during a race, calmly and consistently making the high percentage plays with flawless precision.
Whyte is the Michael Jordan of Hong Kong racing, but the comparisons don’t stop with unsurpassed personal achievements. The biggest misconception of Jordan is it was his physical gifts that set him apart, and while there’s no doubting the six-time championship winner was a remarkable athlete, it was his desire and almost obsessive competitiveness that saw his fame transcend basketball.
Similarly, many judges don’t rate Whyte as the “best” jockey in Hong Kong – at least in terms of a complete skill set (although they do find a hard time picking holes) – but the art of collecting winners and Jockeys’ Championships extends to more than physical make-up and race riding.
Jordan reportedly loved late-night individual workouts in otherwise empty gyms, hoisting thousands of jump shots while he knew his rivals were sleeping or out socialising. The equivalent for Whyte is the amount of trackwork he rides. If there’s a promising horse at the trials, you can bet he has already been on it. He has the networking skills, does his homework and has the substance, with an engine room full of horse power provided by the strongest stable in town.
Just like it was with Jordan, it seems the media at times take Whyte’s dominance for granted and rush to anoint a new successor to the throne, but it’s going to take a lot more than a two-meeting “slump” to dethrone this king.