Jockey Douglas Whyte passes love of horses to his children
Champion jockey Douglas Whyte is instilling a love of horses in his children, writes Charley Lanyon
A soft rain is falling on the paddock at Beas River Equestrian Centre in Sheung Shui. Douglas Whyte is meticulously checking equipment, tugging the leather straps as he attaches a saddle to a patiently waiting horse.
Whyte, Hong Kong's most successful jockey, has ridden some of the finest race horses on earth, but today he is focused on a small white pony called Gemma. Astride Gemma is Ethan, Whyte's nine-year-old son. His weekly riding lesson is about to begin.
After 12 straight champion seasons, Whyte holds the record for career wins in Hong Kong and is the only jockey in the city's history to reach 1,000 wins. He is 41 years old and still going strong: last year his winnings surpassed HK$1 billion. He will take part in four Hong Kong International Races today in Sha Tin.
But Whyte is more than just a sportsman. He is a wine lover who spends part of every year on a farm in Tuscany, and an animal lover whose house is heaving with dogs, cats and other rescued pets. Above all he is a father of two children, Ethan and 12-year-old Sheikara.
Whyte first sat on a horse when he was two years old. "I can't remember my feeling at that time, but I've seen my smile in the photos that were taken," he says. He started going on rides with his father, into the South African countryside, when he was five, his father holding tightly onto the guide reins.
By the time he was eight, Whyte was confidently riding on his own. When he was nine, his father died. In a way, his success can be traced to those long wilderness rides with his father, and Whyte tries to share that experience with his children. During the family's annual holiday in Tuscany, the trio - Whyte says his wife doesn't really ride - saddle up their horses and go on aimless rides for hours into the Italian countryside.
These shared experiences are the main reason he wants them to learn to ride. "It's purely because I don't want to have to be hanging on to both of their lead reins. I want to be able to enjoy the ride, and they must be able to control the horse," he says.
Whyte says spending time with horses has taught him respect, understanding and commitment - values that he hopes to pass on to the children. "It's taught me what animals can give you back if you respect them and work with them.
"It's an amazing feeling. When you work with animals in a trustworthy way, and do not feel any need, want or fear [of them], it gives you a feeling that is difficult to explain. If I can let my kids have just a little bit of that feeling, I couldn't ask for anything more."
As his own father died when he was young, he thinks it is important that his children feel he is there for them. He makes a point of watching their riding lessons, and his children return the favour, loudly cheering him on from their box during big races.
"They get pretty vocal, and after I win a race, they stand at the window of our balcony and wave to me. It's also nice to know that they're watching me on a bad day. It gives you a little bit of a lift," he says.
A love of animals unites the Whytes across generations. "My dad obviously loved animals, and he always saved them. If there was anything he could save, he would. I'm the same, I suppose. If there's anything that's injured, we pretty much take it on."
His daughter shares his love of horses, in particular, and is an avid and competitive rider. "She's got her own pony in London at boarding school, so instead of a PE lesson, she's allowed to go and do horse riding. She also does showjumping and dressage in competition."
Whyte says his son is not as keen on riding as his daughter. "He was nervous in the beginning. My son's not interested enough yet to have a conversation about horses. My daughter can talk about her horse for three hours, but if Ethan spends 10 minutes asking about a horse, it's a lot. But if you want to talk about soccer, he'll talk for two hours."
Ethan is more interested in wildlife. "If there's one thing that I think he might be, it's a game ranger," his father says. Ethan looks forward to the annual trips he and his sister take with their mum to South Africa, where they visit family and head off into the game parks.
"He'll sit in the front with the tracker and spot the markings and tracks. He loves it. It's not just the 'big five' that he wants to see. He'll see a spider and he'll stop and want to look at it."
There is one thing Whyte doesn't want his children to become - jockeys. He still remembers the pain he experienced when he was 13 years old and decided to go off to jockey training school. He was forced to sell his prized ponies, and his mother begged him not to go.
Along with his success, Whyte has experienced sacrifice and the pressure of the public's lofty expectations. This, he thinks, would be even greater for his son: "I know that if Ethan does become a jockey, there's going to be more pressure on him because of my success. I don't think that's fair. I won't make him do it my way because, that's not going to allow him to grow."
But he is obviously proud to see his children in the saddle. "When I come here, Ethan's dressed up in his tie and his white jodhpurs, and he goes, 'Dad, I'm nervous.' And I'm nervous because I know what it's like. Those moments put me in a similar place to when I was that age. It's special for me."
As he waits for his son to finish his lesson, Whyte reflects on the choices he has made. If he had it all to do again, would he make the same decisions? Would he still give up his ponies to become a jockey?
He looks at his son, walking towards him, dressed in his riding gear. It's not a difficult question, it seems: "Yes, it is in my blood. I have bones that were bred for racing,"