Tough training, but life-changing rewards
For 44 years, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has been cultivating great jockeys from its Apprentice Jockeys’ School. Be it highly respected jockey and trainer Tony Cruz or champion trainer Dennis Yip Chor-hong, some of the school’s famous graduates, being an apprentice means learning from scratch. School life might be tough, but if you’re determined to excel, the Club offers you the best possible training to get on the winning saddles.
That is the experience of 22-year-old apprentice jockey Jack Wong as he looks back at his life-enriching transformation over the past seven years. “From an ordinary Form 4 school student to a winning jockey gaining notoriety in the mass media, horse racing has indeed changed my life,” he says.
Despite having less than 1% of the world’s racehorses in training, the Club has become recognised as a global leader in the sport, with one in four of the World’s Top 25 races taking place in the city. The opportunity this offers apprentices to learn from and ride with the very best is self-evident.
Enrolled in the Apprentice Jockeys’ School back in 2009, Wong underwent hours of training which required him to start each day at 4:00 am. Apart from needing to follow this disciplined schedule, his personal physique put obstacles in his way, “My fitness was inferior to others at the beginning. I had to spend extra time in the gym. I remember once my arms got so numb after prolonged training that I could not even stretch them out.”
But Jack’s devotion to achieving his dream of success was strong and he was able to persevere because in his mind, there was literally no alternative. “I had made no back-up plans so I didn’t have the luxury of quitting. When I stayed, bit by bit I developed a passion for riding.”
Thankfully for him, the Apprentice Jockeys’ School prepared him well for his future career. The accredited Racing Trainee Programme offered by the school covers all-round training from riding techniques, stables management and sports science to English, IT, music, weight management, stress management and even financial management. In other words, everything a young jockey in training needs for success, perhaps a little more. Wong is a Grade 7 pianist, by the way.
Apart from learning to be jockeys, racing trainees have the chance to develop their talents in a wide range of posts in the equine field, for instance as work riders, racing management trainees, equestrian assistants or farriers.
Outstanding trainees are sent out to learn from overseas trainers. This helps broaden their experience and allows them to discover more about other racing cultures. Wong, for example, spent two-and-a-half years advancing his training by riding as an apprentice in New Zealand. During that period he learned from trainers John Sargent, Mike McCann, and Lance O’Sullivan, registering 36 wins from 443 rides.
The overseas training was an eye-opening experience for the then young jockey-to-be. “Hong Kong jockeys usually get in touch with horses when they are 14 to 15 years old, which is a disadvantage compared with overseas jockeys who usually start at a much younger age,” Wong observes. “But the systematic training of the Club allows us to catch up in no time,” he adds with a confident smile.
The up-and-coming apprentice jockey took his career record to a decent 21 wins from 372 race rides at a winning rate of 6 per cent in the 2015/16 season. Backed up by the Club and his own hard work, Wong is building on this solid foundation and steadily reaching his goal of more outstanding rides.