A history-making and headline-grabbing four wins made Kei Chiong Ka-kei a star at Sha Tin on Sunday, while there were tears of relief when Nanako Fujita finally broke through for her first Japan Racing Association win on the same day – even though, or perhaps because, she had already reached celebrity status.
The burgeoning careers of “KK” and Nanako have run interesting parallels thus far – a couple of talented young female athletes fighting against-the-odds battles against the boys, and the establishment, for respect and recognition in two of the world’s most competitive sporting arenas. Both are the only females riding in their respective countries, and both are the first females for more than 15 years in Hong Kong and Japan as well.
Sunday provided another snapshot on how similar their situations are in many ways, but mostly, the day highlighted the huge difference in their profiles and how they have been stage managed by officials to this point.
Fujita has already starred in a television commercial and featured on the front page of mainstream newspapers, and all this before she had so much as won a race.
Crowds were up at the meetings she rode at as well, banners brandishing her name draped over fences of the parade rings at the racecourses she competed at, as Japan’s crazy race fans came down with a severe case of Nanako fever.
The pressure of expectation was enormous on Fujita – who, at just 18, is five years younger than Chiong – and it showed with her outpouring of emotion on Sunday, tears streaming down her face after a win on Sunny Days at Fukushima.
It took her 51 races to break through for a maiden JRA win and it is clear she is at a more formative stage of her development than Chiong.
Chiong’s beaming smile was similarly splashed across the front page of Hong Kong’s dailies when she became the first women rider to notch four wins in a meeting at a Hong Kong racetrack, but she had already ridden nine winners and showed steady improvement after some shaky early efforts.
It would be too easy to jump into questions like, “Have the Jockey Club done enough to use Chiong’s unique status to promote the sport?” – especially when it is clear a somewhat cotton wool approach has helped her develop with less pressure than Fujita has faced.
The paths to riding at the top level in Hong Kong and Japan are completely different, as is the competitiveness of race riding at top level.
18yo Nanako Fujita , the first female JRA Jockey in 16 years rode her first winner at Fukushima, Twitter metling down #now— G (@LongBallToNoOne) April 10, 2016
さすが菜七子推しのニッカンスポーツ。意外にもスポニチも一面だった pic.twitter.com/8PELjpDOv9— モッツァン@もーら (@at_mora) April 11, 2016
Nanako gets a Turfy in Japan, but KK gets a McQueen at Sha Tin - four winners for Kei Chiong pic.twitter.com/dV31pJ587i— Michael Cox (@KemblaCoxy) April 10, 2016
Fujita spent a few months in the second-tier NRA circuit before being thrown in the deep end at Japan Racing Association tracks, but even then, “deep end” is a relative term as Japanese racing is nowhere near as tough as the two-meeting-per week schedule of Sha Tin and Happy Valley.
There’s no doubt Japan is easier – the fact Mirco Demuro is vying for a championship there tells you that. Good jockey, but would he finish top five in Hong Kong? Plus there are at least two racetracks running meetings each weekend – there is a “division II” of sorts, and the top flight doesn’t look as daunting.
It makes Chiong’s efforts all the more impressive, but she had already ridden 43 winners before making her big league debut at the start of this season, competing at a variety of tracks against some tough competition at times in New Zealand.
Four wins in a day was a breakout performance, so where are the endorsement deals and billboards featuring KK?
It won’t be happening – yet. Officials are wisely ensuring the results happen first and that any media profile happens organically. Soon, Chiong’s full claim will be gone and we will see what she has really got – just like every other apprentice, male or female.
On Sunday Chiong earned what might be the greatest mark of respect for any rider in Hong Kong – she got a round of applause from the notoriously cantankerous lot that sits around the Sha Tin parade ring.
These race fans are a particularly unsentimental bunch. If Lucky Nine’s recent retirement ceremony had gone a minute longer, they probably would have started booing, lest it cut into their precious horse watching time, or heaven forbid, give them less chance to partake in their latest pastime – booing Douglas Whyte.
There are no colourful banners around the parade ring at Sha Tin, just hardened punters, so the recognition was touching in a funny sort of way.
On Sunday night, Chiong returned to apprentice school and was back at trackwork. For now, the endorsement deals will just have to wait, and she can get on with riding winners.