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My life: Tony Cruz

The jockey-turned-trainer looks back on a glorious career, with Heather Adams

 

BORN TO RIDE I was born and brought up in Hong Kong. My father was from Shanghai and my mother from Macau. We traced the family tree; my family were Portuguese naval people. They came to Hong Kong from Shanghai. We all lived together in Luso Apartments (in Kowloon Tong) and most of our fathers worked for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. Most Portuguese have emigrated to Europe and America now. My brother Derek (also a horse trainer) is still here but my sister emigrated to San Francisco. My father and my uncle - my mum's brother - were jockeys so I had both feet in racing from the start. I got all the basics from my father. He was everything - my mentor, my trainer, my agent. He passed away six years ago.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK I first sat on a horse, a real racehorse, when I was three - I was taught how to hold the reins. I learned to ride when I was eight. I joined the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club at 14. We were the first batch of apprentice jockeys to graduate back in 1973. I was champion apprentice twice. We got our training at Beas River. Training toughens you up but I had fun, too, and we learned everything; how to ride, how to take care of horses, feeding and grooming.

We were then sent to Happy Valley; it was the only track then. At first we stayed in the apprentice quarters in the clock tower hostel, which was cramped and close to the kitchen; the noise from there was terrible. The day started at 3.15am. By 3.30 we were opening up, turning the paddock lights on. The (track) floodlights didn't come on until 5am, so we were galloping in the dark, chasing cats and dogs.

WINNING STREAK I was champion jockey six times in Hong Kong. My rivalry with (top Australian) Gary Moore helped fuel that and also got the public's enthusiasm. They wanted you to represent Hong Kong. I was also the rider of (1980s champion) Co-Tack. He knew how to race - very professional going into the gates. He had exceptional acceleration but would slow right down in the last quarter - I could have trotted him in because no horse in Hong Kong could come anywhere near him; he blew them out. There were not so many races then and I won almost everything locally.

THE MISSILE Alan Li (Fook-sum), former chairman of Jockey Club, had a number of horses being trained in France. He was a big help in getting me to ride overseas. I was offered a contract with (French trainer) Patrick Biancone and moved the whole family to France in 1990. For the next four years, I rode for many big contract owners; rich and famous men such as the Aga Khan, Daniel Wildenstein; and trainers like Henry Cecil and Ian Balding. I was lucky to get to ride Triptych. I won the English Champion Stakes with her twice and the Dubai and Fuji stakes. I was known as the Cruz Missile. I then spent a year in England, based in Newmarket. I rode a winner for the queen at Haydock Park on a horse called Harmonious. I loved racing in the UK; there was so much to like about England, except the travelling between tracks, the rain and the traffic M25, North Circular - that was terrible.

HANDING OVER THE REINS The Jockey Club had invited me to return and I got my last jockey champion title and won on my last ride on June 1, 1996. I was 40. I didn't want to retire but I had a lot of injuries by then. My biggest fall had come in 1990, when riding for the Aga Khan in France. I had been leading a field of 17 and my horse just went down and pulled three others down on top of me. I was between all these legs, being kicked around like a football. It was lights out! I was lucky to wake up. I trained hard to get fit again but was facing paralysis if I continued to ride. I have spondylitis (a spinal condition) and other aches and pains. In the end, it's not just a matter of heart and mind; your body says, "Enough".

The first year after retirement I spent going to the best trainers I had worked with in France, UK and America. Thank God I was still young enough to learn. I got my Hong Kong licence in 1997 and slowly developed my own way. I'm still learning. I've won the trainers championship twice. Both my son, Sean, and daughter, Antonia, ride but they're not interested in racing careers.

A LIVING LEGEND Silent Witness was a godsend. It was the time of Sars and Hong Kong people were scared. The club put up screens and banners everywhere in the shopping malls and MTR stations to encourage everyone to come to the races, or see him on screen. He was the highlight of my training career - his natural high-cruising speed helped him win 17 consecutive races. He was a shy horse - didn't like people touching him. After racing in Japan he got a virus in quarantine. It was all downhill after that. His hind fetlocks ("ankle" joints) got run down. He was getting injured so we retired him in 2006 to Living Legends, a luxury retirement home for horses near Melbourne. The Australians parade him on Melbourne Cup day. I have had a lot of other good horses too: Bullish Luck, Lucky Owners and (currently) California Memory.

ANIMAL INSTINCTS Racing has been a thrilling career for me - plenty of thrills and spills - and racing in Hong Kong has become world class. I was told as a child that horses run for me. Maybe I had a gift or it was instinct. You need horsemanship, which you can't learn from books. You have to be around (horses) every day. People with horsemanship can see how (the animals) are feeling; read their moods, their body language. And horses do recognise people. On race day I saddle up my own horses, touch them and get them relaxed. I still like to get up early and walk to track work - there's nobody around and it's so quiet I can hear my bones creak.

 

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