You can’t help but think Hong Kong racing lost a little bit of soul last week and that next season’s jockey roster looks awfully thin after more than 2,000-plus wins worth of experience walked out the door.
The shock announcement of Joao Moreira’s imminent departure kicked off a crazy 24 hours that left plenty of observers asking “what’s going on in Hong Kong?” and left the Jockey Club desperately seeking new heroes.
The ongoing drama surrounding Nash Rawiller, who was banned by the Jockey Club in April for accepting money or gifts for tips, had the capacity to frame Friday’s unprecedented upheaval in an unfairly suspicious light; but this wasn’t a case of “cleaning house”.
Moreira simply walked – as did Berry – and whatever spin some pundits want to put on the departures, there is no doubt next season’s roster is suffering from a severe lack of star power.
The absence of Moreira (699 Hong Kong wins), Prebble (806), Doleuze (571) and Berry (69) leaves a gaping void of both profile and experience.
Their replacements, at least so far, are fresh-faced South Africans Callan Murray and Grant van Niekerk. It’s probably a little unfair to list the newcomer’s combined Hong Kong wins (four), given van Niekerk hasn’t ridden here yet, but they are hardly household names outside their homeland.
The nature of Moreira’s announcement means a replacement hasn’t been found – but how do you replace a freak? This was Hong Kong racing’s version of Michael Jordan, a once-in-a-generation talent who had already proven himself as a winning machine in Singapore before he came to Sha Tin.
If the search is starting with marquee names like Ryan Moore, Hugh Bowman, William Buick or Christophe Soumillon, let us save the recruiters some time – they aren’t coming.
On face value, Moreira’s departure should make recruitment easier, even if Zac Purton now seems set to ride 150-plus winners per season.
With the four who are leaving, plus Rawiller’s exit, there are wins to be had.
With the grind of an 88-meeting schedule that stretches deep into summer and monthly trips to mainland China for barrier trials at Conghua coming up next season, it seems the Jockey Club are favouring a roster full of keen kids.
Can you imagine Moore sitting on a bus winding through the mind-numbing landscape of outer Shenzhen to go and ride barrier trials?
And why would in-demand veterans like Moore want to ride full-time? They get the call up for the big races anyway, like Moore did when he won the 2018 BMW Hong Kong Derby on Ping Hai Star.
Bowman won five Group Ones in Hong Kong in a 14 months stretch from March 2016 riding only on marquee days. The big names get the best of both worlds.
Berry’s season stands as a cautionary tale. He had enjoyed even more success than Bowman in a similar fly-in, fly-out capacity, winning eight Group Ones over four seasons from 2013 and maintaining “flavour of the month” status during late term stints.
Berry returned full-time as John Moore’s stable jockey in what was meant to be a saloon passage to Group race success. Unfortunately the bottom fell out of the John Moore stable, and Berry filled the role of scapegoat. To put it bluntly, his season was a disaster saved only by his professionalism and a well-deserved Group One on Pakistan Star.
Hong Kong’s per-race prize money is the highest of any racing jurisdiction in the world, but as Moreira told the Post, for him at least, “it’s not about the money”.
Nor is it for Moore, Bowman or Soumillon – already wealthy jockeys for whom lifestyle and riding the best horses in the biggest races in the world comes first.
Of course, young talent will step up; 20-somethings Karis Teetan, Chad Schofield, Sam Clipperton and Umberto Rispoli will all be keen to build their win totals.
Somebody will become the next star, that’s the nature of sport, but it seems Hong Kong racing doesn’t have the allure it once had for big-name jockeys.