By Hans Ebert

Much has been recently written about young Hong Kong-born female apprentice Kei Chiong, and much more will be written about her. She has brought a youthful exuberance to horse racing along with a certain Girl Power, and a startlingly quick success rate over the past few months that has seen her zoom into the Top Ten in the Hong Kong Jockey Premiership with 25 winners following a double at Shatin on Saturday.

She’s sure to be making some of the senior jockeys riding here very nervous as they hustle for rides and find getting on horses with winning chances almost impossible. Not for Kei Chiong. She’s in-demand, she’s delivering the goods, and, well, she’s showing mighty big balls of fire not to be intimidated by the big names she’s riding against. She’s also forcing a number of former critics to eat humble pie. Over and over again.


Right now, there’s Joao Moreira, Zac Purton, and Kei Chiong, all marketable, and with that fierce determination to win- and constantly improve as riders. Joao Moreira, the Magic Man, can improve even further? Is that possible? Just as in life, in horse racing, one never stops learning. There are always new tricks to add to one’s repertoire.


Amidst all this well-deserved adulation, let’s not lose sight of the fact that when Kei Chiong went through her baptism of fire with fellow ten-pound claiming apprentice Jack Wong at the start of this season, there were several doubters who wondered out aloud about how long she would last. Her wrists were too small, they said. She was weak in a finish, they said, and she was far from being the finished product to compete with the world class international jockeys who ride regularly in Hong Kong, they said. They said. Past tense.


In those early days- and they weren’t that long ago- most eyes- and stable support- was on fellow apprentice Jack Wong. He was the Great Local Hope who was going to be the new Matthew Chadwick- Chadwick having initially taken Hong Kong racing by storm, where he used his ten-pound allowance to run his rivals ragged with his bold front-running rides.


Being indentured to the stable of Tony Cruz didn’t hurt. After all, Hong Kong’s most famous racing son had ridden and won races in Europe against some of the greats- Piggott, Eddery, Carson, Cauthen, Dettori, Swinburn etc. The great Brent Thomson aka “The Babe” rates Tony Cruz as the best he has seen. So does Felix “The Cat” Coetzee, the brilliant South African, who, through a totally unexpected offer from Cruz when he was in hospital recuperating after a fall and pondering his future, stayed in Hong Kong to be his stable rider and became part of the C Team behind the worldwide success of the great Silent Witness.

Life is full of twists and turns, and after his retirement as a rider, one perhaps thought that this would be the end of Coetzee’s association with Hong Kong. Wrong. These days, apart from working back home with the talented young South African rider Smanga Khumalo, one of the nicest guys in horse racing was recruited by the HKJC to help in the mentoring of apprentices Jack Wong and Kei Chiong. It’s definitely one of the Club’s more inspired hires.


Speak to Felix Coetzee, and he’ll admit that the job didn’t come without its challenges. Think about it: Here was one of the greatest jockeys to ride in Hong Kong having to make sure that his young students could compete against some of his former rivals like his best friend and thirteen-time champion Hong Kong jockey Douglas Whyte, Gerald Mosse, Zac Purton, Brett Prebble, Neil Callan, good local senior riders like Vincent Ho, Derek Leung and Keith Yeung plus a new kid in town he had only seen from afar and thought to be a phenomenal riding talent- Joao Moreira.


“Joao Moreira is amazing because he really is at one with his horse,” says Coetzee, who’s not exactly a rookie when judging a jockey’s ability. “He’s in total harmony with his horse, and which must go back to his days as a poor kid in São Paulo, where he rode bareback, and only managed to afford a saddle during his teen years. Joao’s balance, timing, and that determination not to lose…Wow!”


Dedication, commitment, professionalism, these are all words synonymous with the soft-spoken Coetzee, a rare breed of human, who actually listens and thinks before he speaks. He would be terrible on Twitter, especially when reading some of the drivel going back and forth between self-styled racing gurus.


When his two young charges were going through a lean learning patch and Doubters and Naysayers Anonymous had come out to play, the South African was even more adamant about turning things around. “You know, man, I’m not giving up on these kids”, he said at the time. “They might not like what I tell them about their rides and what they need to do to improve, but that’s my job, and they have to take it on the chin”.


For several months, it was Jack Wong who showed the most potential and was riding his fair share of winners- nothing spectacular, but a work in progress making progress. It was different with Kei Chiong.


Being the first female in over fifteen years to be granted a riding license in what is still very much a male-dominated sport, she had to have that mental resolve to succeed when under the constant pressure of having to prove herself on the racecourse- all the time. It couldn’t have been easy. And riding in Hong Kong is a million miles away from her nurturing period spent in New Zealand, first with Graham Richardson, and then with Allan Sharrock. Her 44 winners from 453 rides in New Zealand were hardly the stuff of wunderkinds, but one has to start somewhere.


Coetzee had complete confidence that Kei Chiong would succeed. “Don’t worry about her, she’s a tough little cookie”, he said when she first started her career in Hong Kong. “She listens and nothing gets past her. I’ve seen her in the parade ring after getting her riding instructions, and she there taking it all in.”


What was the turning point as the Kei Chiong we’re seeing now is the new, improved- much improved- version? One can mention her remarkable four-timer at Shatin on April 10 with only the Gavin Lerena-ridden Ho In One denying her a quintet of winners by the barest of margins, but there was much work put into her comeback after a number of weeks on the sidelines with an injury to her wrist.





“That injury was, frankly, a blessing in disguise,” admits “The Cat”. “It gave us the time to strengthen and focus on her using her left hand with the whip. Before this, she was only a right-handed whip rider, which didn’t offer much in a finish. During her time on the sidelines, we made sure that she practically lived with the whip in her left hand. The change and improvement is remarkable”.


Of course, the question is how long will this magical ride continue after Kei Chiong loses her seven-pound weight allowance to five, then three, and before she becomes a senior jockey? The same goes for Jack Wong. Hong Kong racing has seen what happened to talented, but wayward apprentice Marco Chiu.


After a good start to his career, he quickly went off the tracks. Originally indentured to the yard of David “Darth” Ferraris, he was forced to move from there to another harsh task master in Tony Cruz before finally leaving Hong Kong for everywhere from Canada to Western Australia to, more recently, New Zealand.


Then there’s Matthew Chadwick, a hugely gifted young apprentice, who, somehow, never made that quantum leap to senior rider status despite the backing of, again, Tony Cruz, and his association with the mighty California Memory.


Says Felix Coetzee, “We’ve been planning ahead. The fitness regimes for both Jack and Kei keep changing, they’re getting stronger, physically and mentally, and advice from such greats like Douglas (Whyte) and Tony (Cruz) have been hugely helpful. Jack is learning to be more assertive, on and off the track, and how he needs to really put his head down and attack that finish line. He’s a very good kid- and very intelligent- and improving all the time as a rider. Just watch his winning ride at Shatin yesterday”.


Like the city itself, Hong Kong racing is in a state of transition. Turnover and attendance figures are better than expected. Its resilience to the global economic downturn is quite remarkable as is its ability to continue in a parallel universe despite Hong Kong’s frustration and anger over its future, a hugely unpopular and indecisive Chief Executive along with outside negative forces working furiously knowing that out of chaos comes opportunity- for them.


The world of horse racing in Hong Kong, meanwhile, marches to the beat of its own drum. It’s just being able to figure out what beat the drummer is keeping. Reggae? Hip-hop?Salsa? Rock? Changes seem to be afoot and the HKJC has already bid a fond, but low key adieu to longtime Director Of Racing Billy “Let Me Get Back To You” Nader, below, with this role now split between Englishman Tony Kelly and Australian Andrew Harding.


On the subject of farewells, the great French rider Gerald Mosse recently left these shores. After almost two decades in Hong Kong, and an incredible list of Group 1 wins, he couldn’t find the support system to keep him here.


In the meantime, Douglas Whyte, who won an amazing thirteen consecutive Hong Kong Jockey Premierships, is enduring his worst season ever. It’s his annus horribilis. Without support, no one can ride winners. Douglas Whyte is not riding winners. It’s as simple as that. And despite having never been a quitter, one wonders how long he will bother to keep picking up the crumbs. For what he’s done for Hong Kong racing, he deserves more. And for Whyte, when you’ve been to the top of the mountain, who wants to drown in the swamp with the reptiles? Felix Coetzee and Douglas Whyte to mentor the next group of Chinese apprentices for the HKJC – and Chinese not necessarily from Hong Kong, but places like Inner and Outer Mongolia where kids are born to ride? Why not?



Meanwhile, at a time when Hong Kong desperately needs a Feel Good Factor to quell the warring political parties, all the cons, scams, hackers and gloom and doom about its future, there’s the smiling face of Kei Chiong. The smile is infectious.


Her success recalls this city’s Can Do spirit. And just like it took the horse Silent Witness to offer hope to Hong Kong during the SARS crisis, horse racing, always so intrinsically part of Hong Kong life, can play its role through the HKJC in giving this city a tangible Feel Good Factor with its Happy Wednesday brand, the arrival of Kei Chiong, and an evolving business model that’s ringing out the old, ringing in the new, and changing with the times.