Jockeys have won more races in Hong Kong, but not many had more fun doing it than Olivier Doleuze and even fewer endeared themselves to the city’s racing fans as much as the flamboyant Frenchman.
With his immaculate dress sense and relaxed, cheerful demeanour, Doleuze was a hit off the track, but on the track he was an athletic whirlwind with a knack of finding a top horse at the right time.
Yet despite the natural flair, after 17 seasons and 571 wins, peppered with famous Group race success aboard some of Hong Kong’s greatest ever horses, the showman chose a quiet exit from Sha Tin on Sunday.
“I want to thank the Jockey Club for these years to be part of Hong Kong racing for so long,” an emotional Doleuze said after stewards granted him permission to return home to France for personal reasons. “I want to thank the stewards, vets and farriers as they are the ones that make sure we come back home safe. Hong Kong racing is the safest in the world, it really is amazing, people should come and learn from here.”
Reflecting on his career, Doleuze singled out trainer Michael Chang Chun-wai, the laconic local with whom he shared perhaps his most famous big-race victory.
The cigar-touting Chang and Doleuze might have looked like an odd combination riding around in the trainer’s golf cart at trackwork, but together they orchestrated what is arguably the greatest feat by any Hong Kong-trained horse on foreign soil, and certainly the most unique.
Rich Tapestry’s win in the 2014 Santa Anita Sprint was the first win by a Hong Kong horse in America and, given the degree of difficulty, could be the last.
“I will miss Michael, especially those rides with him on the golf cart to his stable. Winning on Rich Tapestry was probably my best memory. To do that for Michael and Hong Kong was something special,” Doleuze said.
Yes, as the intro stated, some jockeys rode more winners, but we should be more specific, as there are only nine of them, and the list is a who’s who of modern greats.
Douglas Whyte, Tony Cruz, Zac Purton, Joao Moreira, Brett Prebble, Gary Moore, Basil Marcus, Gerald Mosse and Felix Coetzee. It is rare company, and Doleuze leaves ranked 10th, with a big gap to 11th.
Doleuze maintains it isn’t about the fame or fortune, it is the friendships forged while on the journey, that counted.
“It’s about the story behind the win, all of what goes into it, that’s why I ride,” he said. “Of course it would be great to ride five or six winners like Joao and Zac, but what I love is the magic behind the winner. The relationships we make.”
That’s why Doleuze ranks The Duke’s upset win in the 2006 Hong Kong Mile – a first Group One for good friend Caspar Fownes – among his career highlights that also include Group One victories on Good Ba Ba and Eagle Regiment.
Fownes supported Doleuze when he came back from a serious shoulder injury in 2016 and although it has been a lean time since then, Doleuze did have a curtain call left in him on D B Pin in January’s Group One Centenary Sprint Cup.
Doleuze showcased his sportsmanship by hoisting winning jockey Nash Rawiller’s arm into the air when D B Pin was narrowly beaten by Mr Stunning in the Hong Kong Sprint. A month later Doleuze got to lift his own arm in celebration on D B Pin, more than 1,100 days since that famous victory at Santa Anita.
While this Hong Kong chapter has closed, the 46-year-old balked at the word retirement – and so he should while he still boasts a natural athleticism and physical fitness regime that would put many younger jockeys to shame.
“I don’t want to rush anything,” he said. “I just want to have a break to see if I miss it, and see if I will keep going. It is too early to make a decision. I have nothing to prove to myself and am so happy to have such a long career, I was never on top, but I was always happy.”