Zac Purton's hard work has paid off in Hong Kong. Photo: Kenneth Chan

Zac Purton’s hard work has paid off in Hong Kong. Photo: Kenneth Chan

By Alan Aitken, South China Morning Post
The licensing announcement on Monday had a fairly odd look to it, with three club jockeys soon to leave and only one new apprentice rider declared as coming in.

While it is an ongoing situation and we expect a young Melbourne-based jockey to be licensed any day now for the final part of this season, what has been going on behind the scenes shows how tough it is to find candidates deemed perfectly suitable.

There are suitable jockeys available, but the key words are perfectly suitable.

While the suggestion is frequently wheeled out that a ticket to ride in Hong Kong is a privilege, it is a privilege many do not want.

Some, for personal reasons, like starting a family, want to stay put. Others might look at the task ahead if they do leave a successful domestic career to come here and wonder at the degree of difficulty ahead.

For so many years, it was the towering dominance of Douglas Whyte and whoever was his main rival at the time – Shane Dye, Brett Prebble, Felix Coetzee, Zac Purton – that put off new applicants.

Now it’s not just Whyte and one other, it’s Whyte and the two men who have lately bested him, Purton and Joao Moreira.

Mark them down for 40 to 50 per cent of the races run this season, then throw in Neil Callan, Prebble, Nash Rawiller, Gerald Mosse – all here for the entire season, give or take a stewards’ penalty or two – and you can see where this is going.

Any established leading jockey, who has been around enough to read the tea leaves, is going to know he will be fighting for a relatively small proportion of the winners.

If he’s good, of course, he will get there – and that will be the Jockey Club argument for why he should be trying it all – but not everyone wants to play that game. That rider could be swinging in the wind with family, mortgages and expenses back home for a considerable period while that happens. Not every family wants to do that.

On the other hand, there are younger riders, without the same family commitments and more willing to roll the dice on an adventure and hold on until it works or has definitively not worked.

But they are often without long lists of big wins and championships, and harder to sell to the Licensing Committee as a result.

And many of the younger brigade suffer from the youthful misdemeanours that might disqualify them from consideration. In some cases, it doesn’t take much more than rumour and innuendo.

But youth is something out of which everyone grows. While more mature riders like Callan come along and tough it out over regular returns and lengthy periods to gain acceptance, on balance, the club has looked at its best recently gambling on younger jockeys who have not only taken to Hong Kong racing and improved themselves, but have stayed on for a length of time or at least as regulars, negating the constant need to keep finding them.

Purton is the best example. On the rise when he left Sydney, he was nevertheless not yet a household name and carried a tag as having attitude problems – probably unfairly given the work and persistence, which has made him a household name during his time here.

But Tye Angland was another great success and more recently Tommy Berry and Umberto Rispoli, albeit in short stints – younger jockeys who arrived without the big, long record, adapting to and becoming regulars in a Hong Kong scene that is not as appealing to many big overseas names as the Jockey Club likes to think it is.

The fact is that jockeys outwear their welcome in Hong Kong, or their desire to ride here, or cross themselves off the list of potentials by some misdemeanour or other, faster than anyone is actually making new jockeys.

One has to wonder if the demand for perfection is making the job of finding the next ones any easier.