The American Pharoah sideshow that has captivated the racing world this year will roll into Hong Kong next month – in a small form, at least – with his regular rider Victor Espinoza to headline the International Jockeys’ Championship (IJC) at Happy Valley on December 9.
The champion American jockey will be one of 12 riders to contest the annual all-star showcase at the city track, with nine world class riders – eight internationals and local champion Joao Moreira – confirmed as participants by the Jockey Club on Wednesday morning.
The final three contenders – all Sha Tin-based riders – will be confirmed following next Wednesday’s Happy Valley meeting, but it is the presence of Espinoza that is set to steal the headlines.
American Pharoah conquered almost all before him this season in the United States, becoming the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes – before adding the Breeders’ Cup Classic last month. And Espinoza has become a fundamental part of the story, intrinsically linked to a horse that has become an American icon.
The rider also had a successful association with California Chrome, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown last year, while he has crossed into mainstream popularity, appearing on American television show Dancing With The Stars this season.
It will be the 43-year-old’s second IJC stint – his first came in 2003, when he was runner-up to Damien Oliver after a photo finish for fifth in the third and final leg gave victory to the Australian by one point.
Outside Espinoza, though, is one of the strongest contingents ever assembled for the IJC in terms of depth.
Past winner Ryan Moore has had an interrupted season due to injury, but returns once more in search of a third title, along with this season’s British champion Silvestre de Sousa.
Europe will also be represented by young French gun Maxime Guyon, but a notable absentee from the line-up is Frankie Dettori, who is expected to be crowned World’s Best Jockey in a gala dinner in Hong Kong that same week.
Last year’s IJC winner, Japan’s Yuichi Fukunaga would have taken one spot, but a broken shoulder sustained in a fall at Kyoto at the end of October has ruled him out. Instead, he will be replaced by Keita Tosaki, currently second behind Fukunaga in the Japanese premiership.
Sydney-based riders Hugh Bowman and James McDonald will represent Australia and New Zealand respectively, with both coming off strong performances in the spring carnival down under – in particular Bowman, who partnered Winx to a runaway victory in the Cox Plate.
Completing the line-up of internationals is reigning South African champion Gavin Lerena, riding in Hong Kong for the first time.
The Jockey Club announced on Tuesday that Hong Kong-based riders would take up four spots this year instead of three, in a nod to the strength of the current jockey colony.
Moreira, as last season’s champion Hong Kong rider, is already confirmed a place, while Douglas Whyte (15 wins), Brett Prebble (15), Zac Purton (13) and Karis Teetan (13) are vying for the other two spots awarded based on the jockey standings after next Wednesday’s meeting.
The final spot will go to the best-performed senior homegrown rider, which is shaping as a battle between Keith Yeung Ming-lun and Derek Leung Ka-chun, both on seven wins apiece. However, Yeung will not ride again before the cut-off, while Leung returns from a suspension on Saturday – giving him 18 races to secure the position.
Jockey Club executive director of racing Bill Nader says the depth of riders recruited makes the IJC the strongest challenge of its kind worldwide.
“In terms of international jockeys’ competitions, the Longines IJC continues to ride the crest,” he said. “This is an outstanding selection of some of the world’s very best jockeys, which is something we have come to expect. It is an occasion well-established as one of world racing’s greatest nights. The Longines IJC is quite possibly the most intense and competitive jockeys’ competition anywhere in the world.”
All 12 jockeys are randomly allocated mounts for the four legs of the IJC and accumulate points depending on where they finish. The rider with the highest points will receive HK$500,000, the runner-up HK$200,000 and third HK$100,000.