Maybe it was a case of jumping before he was pushed, but Jacky Tong Chi-kit’s impending retirement should still be cause for concern.
Seriously, someone has to ride those 100-1 shots.
“How mean! You can’t even ride a horse,” I hear you wail. But it’s not a shot at Tong at all.
How he rides is irrelevant and for the purposes of this story, even who he is, really, is irrelevant. This is about the horses he has had to ride.
Someone else will now ride the 100-1 shots, with the depth of fields – or lack thereof – and the dominance of the top jockeys, particularly the record-breaking Moreira, making life on the bottom rungs of the jockeys’ championship untenable.
With Tong electing not to reapply for a licence next season, and presumably replaced by a foreign jockey, Alvin Ng Ka-chun or Alex Lai Hoi-wing will now simply slide down the pecking order and be left to pick up the pieces of what is left after the top jockeys take their fill.
To say Tong has been enduring a dry spell would be putting a rather positive spin on things. He has one winner from 215 rides this season, the latest run of outs stretching back to October 1, or a total of 184 rides.
Let’s talk about opportunities though. Of those 215 rides, a grand total of six – count ‘em, six – have been rated a single-figure chance in betting and, to his credit, Tong has at least placed on three of those.
But here is a statistic that is symptomatic of the Jockey Club’s ills right now, and not necessarily Jacky’s lack of skill: 123 of those 215 rides, a massive 57 per cent, have jumped at odds of 100-1 or more.
Stretch it further and you are looking at 172 of Tong’s rides rated at 50-1 or greater – an astonishing 80 per cent given little chance by the market.
So exit stage left Jacky, and what next? Does that solve anything?
Other than an hour or so that used to be taken up annually for Jacky’s show cause hearing, those same horses are going to be going around in race after race – but who rides them?
Next season, it seems likely that there will be five more meetings and an early start. But with no increase in the horse population and no major expansion of training facilities as yet, surely the net effect will be a further dilution of race-by-race quality and/or smaller race fields.
Overall upshot: even fewer opportunities for battling jockeys and more top-heavy races full of horses with little chance.
Moreira’s unprecedented popularity and his ability to ride light makes it even more difficult for those looking for scraps – owners are willing to wait for what they perceive as the Magic Man’s Midas touch.
So what about a solution? There is nothing simple to suggest – more dynamic dropping of horses in the ratings could be seen as a way to spice things up, but is also viewed as a dangerous game when it comes to creating a culture of non-triers and game playing as jockeys employ negative tactics and trainers send around unfit horses. Cynics would say it happens anyway.
Something that can be more easily addressed is the amount that jockeys are paid. Prize money is great, but only if you are winning or placing. Tong’s second placing on 73-1 chance Hella Hedge on Saturday was the first prize-money cheque he will cash for nearly two months, and that includes percentages handed out for fourths and fifths.
The riding fee for jockeys was raised this season but is still only HK$1,200. Is this enough?
Jockeys don’t get paid for trials either, and while foreign jockeys are on a very good deal with no rent, transport and a comfortable two-meeting per week schedule, clearly something is not right when a jockey just decides enough is enough simply by virtue that it isn’t worth his while to keep riding in the leading jurisdiction in the world when it comes to per race prize money.
Rules regulating Moreira’s options won’t work either – he has raised the bar and it’s up to others to catch up, just as was the case when Douglas Whyte won 13 straight championships.
What can be changed is the system – and how to make races more competitive – otherwise Tong’s departure, while probably just a matter of time, might become commonplace. How long before a jockey in that position is actually better served riding elsewhere?
Then, with next season’s licensing announcements on the horizon, there is the impending issue of attracting new talent – a little bit more biodiversity for the struggling climate.
As Opie Bosson and Gavin Lerena are finding out, it is tough moving 10 links down the food chain. The money earned, the lifestyle and the perks of being a Hong Kong-based jockey are fantastic when it comes to world racing, but the riders the Jockey Club wants are competitors – and competitors thrive on winning.
More competitive racing is the answer. How to get there is the challenge and with even more races on the horizon it will be made even more difficult.