Next Wednesday, the Jockey Club will announce the 12 global riders who will come to Hong Kong to contest the Longines International Jockeys' Championship (IJC) at Happy Valley on December 9 as the build-up to international week continues.
Well, they will announce the majority of them at least – all of the visitors will have been locked in by then, while a number of Sha Tin-based riders will still need to qualify based on results during the rest of November.
The list of riders is under lock and key at Sports Road – the only guaranteed participant is last season’s champion Hong Kong rider Joao Moreira, with last year’s IJC winner Yuichi Fukunaga ruled out due to injury. That said, it is believed that some of the sport's biggest names will make their way to arguably the world's most recognisable racetrack for what has become one of the highlights of international week.
Much of the attention in December will be on seeing some of the best horses in the world competing at Sha Tin, but IJC night is something else – a vibrant, electric crowd cheering on the world’s best riders as they tackle a tight track that American jockey Mike Smith once described as being “like a racecourse in the middle of Central Park in Manhattan”. The atmosphere is unmatchable.
Given the Longines World's Best Jockey title will be awarded that week too, at a gala dinner on the Friday night, some of those in contention are expected to appear – even if the title itself is all but over.
At this stage, while there are three races remaining – two in Japan and one in the United States – Frankie Dettori is almost guaranteed to win the second World's Best Jockey title after a remarkable comeback season, featuring multiple Group One wins on Derby winner Golden Horn .
Currently, there is little correlation between the two events – a number of leading pointscorers in the World's Best Jockey race will participate in the International Jockeys' Championship, but it has no bearing on who is crowned as the top rider on the planet.
Perhaps, however, there is a way to tie in the IJC and the World's Best Jockey to make both a seminal feature of the Hong Kong international races and, in a way, the pinnacle of the racing season.
Our idea: make the IJC the grand finale of the World’s Best Jockey title, with a winner-takes-all approach. Have a nine-race card, make all nine races IJC races, and whoever takes the IJC title is nominally crowned World’s Best Jockey.
It would be no different to other sports, where there is a long regular season before a "best-of-the-best" post-season. Just like in other sports, the most consistent rider all year could choke under the pressure of competing against his main rivals, while a fringe player could thrive and salute.
And while the top pointscorer across the world’s 100 best races would still be recognised – just like there is a minor premiership in some sports – the victor will be the rider that performs at his peak at Happy Valley .
It would give more potency to the World’s Best Jockey award, which has a bit of a so-so feeling about it as it stands currently, and it would take the IJC to the next level and make it an unmissable event for racing fans across the globe.
If the 12 riders were to be taken from current standings, the representatives would be Dettori, Victor Espinoza, Maxime Guyon, Javier Castellano, James McDonald, Ryan Moore, Tommy Berry, Hugh Bowman, Joel Rosario, Christophe Soumillon, Moreira and William Buick – a fairly good global representation given the spread of races worldwide.
There are downsides, of course.
Where’s the representation from Japan? South Africa?
To be fair, with two of the three races still to be run in the World’s Best Jockey contest coming up in Japan – the Mile Championship and the Japan Cup – there is still a chance that leading Japanese rider Keita Tosaki could leapfrog into the 12 ahead of Buick. Tosaki would be a crucial addition and would give it that global aspect, although South Africa would still be missing.
But then there would also be the loss of a local link to the series. Moreira sneaks in, but there is a very realistic possibility that many years Hong Kong would not have a representative. How would local racing enthusiasts react to that? There would be lost turnover, sure, although with commingling a growing aspect of Jockey Club turnover, perhaps lost turnover could be offset by increased commingled turnover over the course of a season.
Even with a rider like Moreira involved, one of the interesting facets of the series has been seeing local riders like Vincent Ho Chak-yiu, Keith Yeung Ming-lun and Howard Cheng Yue-tin taking on the best in the world. That too would be lost.
There’s also a matter of home-court advantage. A jockey like Moreira, riding week-in and week-out at Happy Valley , would have a natural head start over jockeys that have never seen the course. Although, perhaps that is overstated.
For instance, long before Espinoza became synonymous with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, he turned up to Happy Valley in December 2003 declaring that he had done his homework – he had printed a map of Happy Valley off the internet and was confident that would help him to win the 2003 series. And he nearly did – it was only a photo finish for fifth which ensured that Australian jockey Damien Oliver nosed him out by one point.
The other downside is the element of luck involved by pinning such an award on allocation of random mounts, as is currently the case in the IJC.
At the moment with the IJC, Jockey A is selected, and they are booked for the first horse available on which they can make the weight. If they ride at 113 pounds, they will get a horse that is closest to the bottom of the weights; if they ride at 123 pounds, they will get the first horse above 123 pounds. Same process applies to all jockeys until the field is filled.
That means that some jockeys get better books than others, while some are left in no man’s land. Take Irad Ortiz Jr last year, for example. The American-based rider had the worst book of rides imaginable across the four races and had no chance whatsoever.
If the World’s Best Jockey was decided by luck, it would probably not carry the same potency. However, across nine races, it also allows for probability to play its part and the likelihood of unwinnable books becomes less so.
Given the involvement of Longines with a number of the top 100 Group One races, the likelihood that the IJC will become the finals series for the World’s Best Jockey is unlikely.
Still, it would be the perfect cherry on top for the racing season and a way to enhance both the series and the award.