Pierre-Charles Boudot’s quick-fire double on Saturday drew comparisons with the wizardry of Christophe Soumillon and left Hong Kong racing fans longing for a time when top European jockeys not only made sporadic visits to Sha Tin but were stars on the local scene.
Belgian-born but French-based Soumillon’s successful winter stints a decade ago made him a cult hero in Hong Kong, but he wasn’t alone in making an impact from Europe.
In the early 2000s, Frenchmen Gerald Mosse, Eric Legrix, Eric Saint-Martin and Olivier Doleuze – who is still riding – didn’t just make an annual winter pilgrimage, they stayed for full seasons.
Yet in recent years there has been a revolving door of European visitors, including some that have gained traction in short winter tenures, but few have returned for so much as a second stint.
French duo Vincent Cheminaud and Greg Benoist impressed many two seasons ago but have not been back, and although their countryman Alexis Badel has “clicked” in two short trips, before that you have to go back to Maxime Guyon’s sensational stopover in 2009-10 for a visiting Frenchman who has truly hit the headlines.
Boudot arrives with raps from his former master Andre Fabre, which is about as gold-plated a reference as you can get in racing, and a year after setting a new European record of 300 winners.
A year before breaking that record, Boudot tied for the French title with Soumillon, who has gone on to break Boudot’s mark by finishing 2017 with 306 wins.
After Boudot won on Ambitious Heart for Ferraris, the trainer pointed out the physical similarities between the 25-year-old and Soumillon – with both jockeys tall and long-limbed but blessed with superb balance and race sense.
“They are a sign of the times, top jockeys are no longer small guys that happen to ride horses, they are horsemen first that then go and make the weight to become jockeys,” he said.
Ferraris said the fans are not alone when it comes to a desire for more diversity in a jockeys’ room that, one Brazilian freak and a South African champion aside, has become dominated by Australians in recent years.
Ferraris said jockeys like Silvestre de Sousa, a Brazilian but based in Britain, or Englishman Ryan Moore can act as circuit-breakers to the dominance of Joao Moreira and Zac Purton – who have ridden more than a third of the winners between them over the last two seasons.
Despite their popularity and success, neither de Sousa nor Moore have been back either – so what is it about an all-expenses paid holiday to a jurisdiction with the highest per-race prizemoney in the world that is so unappealing?
Well, for starters both Boudot and Badel will return to rich retainers for big stables at home, and then there’s the fact it’s harder here than it used to be.
At least that is according to the popular 45-year-old Doleuze, who has witnessed the changes first hand over the last two decades.
“Of course, you’ve got Joao and Zac riding so many winners but the local boys are much better riders now,” Doleuze explained. “So not only have you got Joao that can ride light – and the top riders before were mostly heavyweights – but you have the Chinese guys taking more winners and staying on the good horses.”
Doleuze also pointed out the extension of the European season and a myriad of overseas options for Euros that weren’t factors previously – Cheminaud recently spent a lucrative month-long stint in Japan and Dubai is now a more attractive option than it was 10 or 15 years ago.
Italian Umberto Rispoli is one rider who has made Hong Kong home and he admits it is not easy for a European-based rider to adjust to the hustle and bustle on-track style and the “every man for himself” off-track war that it takes to get and keep a ride.
“It’s not for everyone, in Europe the jockeys have agents and here it takes a lot of face to front up and chase rides every morning in the trainers’ stand,” he said.
Of course, for every Soumillon, there has been Mickael Barzalona and Andrea Atzeni who arrived with reputations but left with their tail between their legs after failing to adjust.
Maybe we are just being too sentimental when wanting a touch more diversity, at least it would seem that is what Danny Shum Chap-shing thinks.
“He [Boudot] is strong, has good hands and stays calm – he has everything a good jockey needs,” Shum said. “But I don’t care where he is from, I like Brazilian and Australian jockeys too. Actually, I just like good jockeys.”