In a few weeks we’ll run through the big questions for 2014 at Happy Lucky Dragon Win, because we don’t avoid the big topics: can Dennis Yip Chor-hong repeat as champion trainer, and if he does, will he create another limited edition line of jeans to celebrate the unlikely accomplishment? Does former trainer Andy Leung Ting-wah actually live under the grandstand at Sha Tin racecourse, making him impossible to get rid of? Can Joao Moreira win the jockeys’ championship while spending more racedays suspended than actually riding?
Even though pondering these questions keeps us awake at night, it’s not the first question anyone with the remotest interest in Hong Kong racing actually asks us.
There’s that elephant in the room, that became a woolly mammoth, which has transformed into a pack of stampeding pachyderms.
The first thing out of anybody’s mouth when like-minded folk gather to talk Hong Kong racing is: “What’s going on with John Size and Douglas Whyte?” Feel better now that we have got it out in the open? The first step in solving any problem is to talk about it.
This is the Hong Kong racing equivalent of Beyonce and Jay-Z calling it quits. Hong Kong’s heart is broken, we thought they were forever. All we need now are some paparazzi-style magazine shots of Douglas sneaking out to get Starbucks, hat pulled low over his eyes, with his new squeeze Danny Shum Chap-shing to make it official.
So, “what is the go with Dougie and John?” as so many readers are demanding. Well, first of all, don’t ask Dougie or John. Well, you can, but they won’t say anything.
Facts are facts though, and the Dream Team looks to have been officially disbanded. And not talking about one of the biggest stories of racing in Hong Kong for years won’t make it go away. It just makes us theorise, and that’s more fun than the likely reality anyway.
The reality? Stable and jockey relationships are a lot like Hollywood romances – they always start off all nice, can be over in an instant, and five years qualifies as a diamond anniversary.
Frankie and Godolphin, Johnny Murtagh and the Aga Khan, in Australia even Nash and Gai parted ways, along with Bart and “the Professor” Roy Higgins back in the day. In comparison Size and Whyte are the Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman of racing – ok, Beyoncé and Jay-Z is a better, or at least a sexier, comparison.
The Size/Whyte separation doesn’t have the same vibe as some of those public spats and subsequent falling outs – both trainer and jockey have spoken of an enduring friendship that extends far beyond racing. It was the “special relationship”.
After Whyte won the 2012 Hong Kong Derby on Fay Fay, on his way to a Size-powered 12th straight championship, in a season where the trainer won his seventh title, Whyte gushed to the SCMP: “It’s great to win a second Derby but I can’t express how happy and excited I am to win one for John Size – not only one of my best friends but a mentor and I’m blessed to ride for him.
"John is the most amazing person I’ve met in racing. He’s always stood by me, he’s been my backbone. I’m sure he has owners hassling to put other jockeys on when I get beaten on one, but I never hear about it and we have the most amazing working relationship. He means everything to me and I feel honoured to have won this for him.”
Whyte is the most honest and articulate jockey we’ve ever had the pleasure to interview and there’s no doubt his relationship with Size was built on direct, honest and open communication.
And of course winning a heap of races. It’s a personal and professional relationship that has stood the test of time, and for nine seasons now the Dream Team have steamrolled opposition.
But last season the percentage of Whyte’s rides that came from Size dropped from 45 to 39 per cent under the lash of a Jockey Club enforced quota aimed at separating the gap between designated stable rider and freelance – which is what Whyte is meant to be, free for everyone to use. He still rode 50 of his 101 winners for Size though.
Whyte had already won four jockeys’ championships before Size began supporting him, but since 2004-05, the powerful stable has supplied the South African with an average of an amazing 40 winners per season.
Now the rug has been pulled out from under Whyte in a big way. Size is spreading the winners around – Whyte doesn’t even have a ride for him on Saturday at Sha Tin and is more than 20 wins adrift of leader Zac Purton, with Dream Team 2.0 members Tye Angland, Olivier Doleuze and Joao Moreira breathing down his neck.
This season Size-trained mounts account for only 16 per cent of Whyte’s rides (24 rides in total) and they have just four winners together. The three aforementioned jockeys each have more wins for Size.
Moreira (seven wins from 21 Size rides), Angland (six of 27) and Doleuze (six of 24) are your new triple-headed monster – that’s three riders with strike rates better than 20 per cent for Size, so it’s fair to say they are doing the job.
The use of Moreira is most startling, striking at 33 per cent for Size, and he seems to be the number one seed in the rotation. He is getting support from all corners too. It's as if there is a Whyte backlash from many, and trainers can’t get enough of Moreira.
“He is worth half a class,” one trainer said on Wednesday night. “He improves horses that much, they just run for him.”
Is that hype or reality? Doesn’t matter really, because they are jumping out of trees to give him rides, so it is the reality now.
But even before Moreira brought his wayward bandwagon to town, the one that wobbles all over the road and won't go straight, there was already a sense that Size was sharing the workload – things were moving into more of an “open relationship” with regards to Whyte. Now the Magic Man is here and proving to be absolute dynamite, well, the Whyte era looks well and truly over.
Of course the lack of quotes and open discussion from the actual elephants in the room has spawned some cracking conspiracy theories too – the best of which is that Size’s cooling off with Whyte is under captain’s orders, with those at the Jockey Club’s Sports Road headquarters considering it healthier if the Dream Team doesn’t stifle betting at every meeting.
The enforcing of what was seen as the “anti-Dream Team” quotas last season adds some fuel to that fire. If that were true though, that it was a Jockey Club edict to water down the impact of Size and Whyte, it has backfired big time, as Moreira’s dominance seems rather Whyte-esque as far as stifling goes – at least when he can stay in the saddle and not get suspended.
This wasn’t how it was meant to end for the Whyte’s championship run. The Durban Demon was meant to fight until the last, and the challenger, probably Zac Purton, would take his title with a last-gasp effort at the final meeting of the season with a whole-hearted push.
But history shows that the end of empires comes quickly, and it’s rarely pretty, as Whyte’s slipping grip on title number 14 proves.