Tony Cruz took public transport once: “Never again.”
“Man, I went into the station to get on the train and I couldn’t get out of there – there were just too many people wanting to speak to me or take photos,” he says of his lone trip on the MTR.
Granted, Cruz’s fame is probably unparalleled in Hong Kong racing, with multiple jockey and trainer championships and a combined win tally approaching 2,000 giving him local hero status, but he isn’t alone in being a celebrity jockey or trainer – particularly with the racing-mad working class.
Expat jockeys and trainers that wander the streets of their home towns in relative anonymity feature on four-storey billboards downtown in Hong Kong and are stopped for autographs regularly, and can enjoy a saloon passage onto tables at some of the best restaurants in town.
So there are the perks, but there’s some downside too – getting harassed for the almighty tip being one, then there are fans whose obsession is a little stalker-like, and Cruz’s public transport conundrum.
“I can’t take taxis either, they won’t stop talking and they will never let me pay,” he said.
It was 13-time jockeys’ championship winner Douglas Whyte causing traffic problems when, at the peak of his powers, he went walking through the busy area between Wan Chai and Causeway Bay one afternoon and caused traffic mayhem.
An overzealous bus driver spotted the South African and simply stopped in the middle of the street. Bemused passengers were left waiting as the driver sprinted across a few lanes, dodging cars, and asked Whyte for an autograph – all the while ignoring the hail of angry taxi driver abuse and beeping of horns.
We recently put jockeys’ fame to the test and took popular Australian rider Zac Purton, or “Pundon” as he is known in Cantonese, right into the heart of horse racing’s heartland and one of the busiest pedestrian areas in Hong Kong – Wan Chai market late on a weekday afternoon.
As expected, there were plenty of “welfies” and autograph requests, before a surprise visit for two racing-obsessed market stall holders – Elsa Lui Po-chu and her husband Lui Man-kee.
Note that when Purton approaches the stall, which sells a colourful mix of candy, nuts and dried fruit snacks, that the first thing that Elsa says is, “You don’t have to pay.” We should also note, in case Hong Kong Jockey Club chief steward Kim Kelly is reading, that no free candy bars or dried fruit were accepted as an appearance fee by Pundon.
Then there is always the dark side of fame and the fans who get a little too crazy about their favourite jockey.
During Joao Moreira’s first season, with the hype around his whirlwind start building to fever pitch, one particularly devoted female follower came to Sha Tin in a wedding dress ready to walk down the aisle with the Magic Man, even trying to unceremoniously enter the parade ring over a guard rail.
That must have been somewhat unnerving for the newly arrived Moreira, but the Brazilian remains as obliging an athlete as there is, never knocking back autograph and photo requests.
It was one such request earlier this season that showed both the celebrity status of jockeys in this town, but more so the power of “the tip” combined with the relatively modern phenomenon of social media.
When Moreira plays in social football matches he probably enjoys being just one of the guys, but it is also a regular occurrence for him to provide opposition players with the chance to pose for a picture post-match.
In mid-February, Moreira took visiting star rider Ryan Moore along for a game and when the pair posed together with two fans, little did they know that the innocent happy snap would inadvertently cause one of the biggest betting moves this season.
The picture was posted on social media, and, as these things are, was shared, liked and shared a few more times again. Eventually, someone asks, “Any tips, lah?” in a comment thread, and before you know it, some wag is claiming Moreira “tipped” Diego Kosta and Moore was big on Imperial Concorde’s chances.
Come raceday, and after Diego Kosta bolts in, Moore was shocked to see odds of 2.2 showing about his mount, a horse that even the most generous of handicappers had rated a 25-1 shot.
By the way, there is no suggestion either rider actually offered tips, and besides, anyone that watches Jockey Club preview show Racing To Win would know that asking Moreira for a tip would be useless – the eternal optimist seems to think every horse he rides is a “nice horse and should win”.
Moore, meanwhile, might not have taken too keen an interest in studying form during his short stay, but he knows the difference between genuine even money chances and rank outsiders.
In the fame game, the positives outweigh the negatives, and it’s not like licensed persons are mobbed or pestered by paparazzi wherever they go.
It could be worse – having nobody recognise you probably means you haven’t ridden or trained many winners.