Recently this space featured a piece on the situation with Hong Kong’s apprentice jockeys, and the apparent lack of them, and we suggested things had turned worse since the young riders could no longer receive training in Australia.
In 2009, the Australian government stopped extending visas for Hong Kong apprentices, necessitating a shift to having them placed with trainers in New Zealand. One or two happy cases aside, that experiment has not proved ideal and we received quite a bit of correspondence on what was happening on that front to cause progress to be so slow.
The good news is that we have heard from the Jockey Club’s director of racing development, Andrew Harding, that the door has been reopened and apprentices can now be placed in Australia again.
It has been a long, painstaking road of lobbying and presenting applications and explanations by the Jockey Club and its representatives to set out how these young riders are actually undergoing training, not just working a job – a subtle but vital distinction in having workplace training visas approved and extended.
Shenny Ka Yu-chan will be the first to go as Hong Kong apprentices return to Australia in coming months, with Queensland-based trainer Brian Wakefield, but there is already at least one more in the pipeline.
And there are also two apprentices being trained in South Africa’s jockey academy system – and nobody here needs to be reminded how successful that system has been.
The benefit of training apprentices in Australia has a lot to do with the tiered nature of racing there, and the frequency of it. Only the United States has more racehorses and more races per annum than Australia, where there are some 20,000 races a year and hundreds of racecourses in all sorts of far-flung places.
But there are also delineations between three levels of racing: city, provincial, country. That enables trainers mentoring the apprentices to manage the level of competition they face, according to their progress.
In New Zealand, a far smaller country, one or more of the leading jockeys is liable to turn up at any meeting and the levels of competition are less variable.
That means any trainer putting an inexperienced apprentice on a winning chance runs the risk of losing the race because his rider gets outpointed by a far better jockey – that can impact on the trainer’s own career, making him less inclined to run that risk and this has been one of the factors at work in making New Zealand a less effective base for training.
In Australia, a rider just starting a career can be pitted against a much lesser standard of rider on country tracks, without much danger of a top city class jockey turning up – in other words, competing at a level commensurate with the rider’s own level, which means that trainers are more generous with opportunities, winners can be ridden, confidence grows and young riders improve.
The benefits won’t be seen for a couple of years, but restarting in Australia is good news for an apprentice training programme which was in danger of withering away.
Extent of bias plain to see
The outside bias in the straight races at Sha Tin is well-known; yes, we have harped on it and will continue to do so as it is, or should be, an embarrassment to the Jockey Club. And Sunday's eighth race gave us a good snapshot of the extent of the bias and not just the fact of it.
When Bear Hero beat Shahjee and Vital Flyer in a race up the straight in January, all three drew out and raced down the preferred outside fast lanes. Bear Hero beat Shahjee by three-quarters of a length with another half length to Vital Flyer.
On Sunday, Shahjee was drawn the outside again while Bear Hero and Vital Flyer had the two inside barriers and raced out in the centre of the course.
Without dramatic differences in handicaps, just a slight edge to Shahjee, or severe in-race incidents to contribute, this time Shahjee beat home Vital Flyer by more than six lengths, and Bear Hero by seven-and-a-half lengths.
Changes afoot to PP rules?
It must be hobby horse day, because another of ours trotted out on Sunday when we had a couple of very thin, uncompetitive races, particularly the second-last won by My Little Friend.
The lack of depth was disguised a little because the four legitimate chances offered quite a good contest within themselves even if the rest of the field looked like something the stable cat dragged in.
In the last couple of seasons, this column has blamed an increasing number of runners at 100-1 plus on poor quality Private Purchase (PP) horses, qualifying with poor form and then having to be run down the handicap for half a season or more to become in any way competitive. At a recent Sha Tin meeting, there were two horses in the one race in this bracket showing more than 500-1.
Again, most of the no-hopers in the ninth on Sunday were fairly recently imported PP horses looking likely to take more time – and more drops in their ratings – before starting to be participants in races and not just four legs and a tail taking up a barrier stall.
When we look at these sorts of horses at a point where the Jockey Club becomes interested – betting turnover – it’s a simple fact that it hurts the hold to have these uncompetitive clumps of runners in the same races.
Even some club officials are starting to think something must be done to address the issues with the quality of the PPs arriving, problems which can take in the way that they become qualified for Hong Kong and even the intentions of the trainers who secure them.
Don’t be surprised if there are some changes on the way to the qualifications and requirements that must be met for PPs, and perhaps even some tinkering with unraced Private Purchase Griffins too, before their importation is permitted.