One of the most anticipated debuts in Hong Kong history will occur at Sha Tin on Sunday (1 September) when race-riding legend Douglas Whyte saddles his step-out runner as a licensed trainer, 23 years after he first rode in a race at the famous track.
The 13-time Hong Kong champion jockey has seven horses declared for the season opener, including California Fortune in the afternoon’s feature, the Class 1 HKSAR Chief Executive’s Cup (1200m).
Whyte’s six-year-old, fourth in the race last year for his previous handler Tony Cruz, will face six high-class rivals: Wishful Thinker, Seasons Bloom, Winner’s Way, Regency Legend, Jolly Banner and Styling City.
“It’s been a slightly rushed preparation because he’s in a bit of a difficult situation with ratings – we’re limited with options,” Whyte said.
“Health-wise he’s fantastic though and I couldn’t fault him. Fitness-wise, he had the one trial, he blew up, which I expected him to, and I think he’s going to come on significantly from that. I would have liked to have got another trial into him and the race to have been 10 days later but you have to run where the races allow you to.”
Whyte has 47 horses at his Olympic Stables base, 26 of which are stable transfers. One such is slated to be his historic first runner, Le Panache, in the season’s first race, the Class 5 Mount Butler Handicap (1600m).
The South African is delighted with the support he has received so far from owners.
“I’m very happy. It has escalated quite quickly; I didn’t expect it to be that number so soon. I’m not complaining!” he said.
“It’s lovely to have the support around me, I’m grateful for that, I’ve been here a long time so I do know a lot of people, but having said that, they still have to have the faith and trust in you to send the horses to you.”
Whyte has “a couple of PPGs (Privately Purchased Griffins)” with “good conformation and constitution” which he said he is “excited about getting to the trials.”
He is also looking ahead, with no shortage of anticipation, to the debut of General’s Delight, a two-time winner form three starts in Australia when named Millard Reaction.
“General’s Delight brings a pretty strong record with him – and a price tag as well – but I’m very grateful to the owners in having the confidence in bringing him here. He looks a lovely individual, he’s a beautiful specimen to look at, he’s a big horse, he’s got everything going for him but he’s a long way off. He’s not going to be rushed. But I’m eager to see how he goes when he steps out to the trials and stretches up.”
Whyte hung up his race saddle on 10 February with a Hong Kong record of 1,813 wins and more than HK$1.5 billion in prize money accrued, as well as numerous big-race victories to look back on. Shortly afterwards, he left on a worldwide journey to learn from some of the sport’s most successful and astute trainers.
“It’s been an interesting trip, a big learning curve for me,” he said. “I’ve had a great experience travelling, I’m grateful to the trainers that afforded me the opportunity to spend time with them and what they were able to share with me. I don’t think there was one that didn’t open up and answer any particular question that I had and for that I’m very grateful. I had a very eventful and knowledgeable time away from Hong Kong.”
His travels took him to Dubai, Britain and Australia; to the stables of Mike de Kock, Sir Michael Stoute, William Haggas, Sir Mark Prescott, Charlie Appleby, David Hayes, Chris Waller, and others besides.
One particular highlight was taking in the vast expanses and myriad training gallops across Newmarket Heath in England.
“I hadn’t ridden work there and it was one of the boxes I wanted to tick before signing off, and I was fortunate enough to be able to ride work every morning while I was in the UK on some of the better quality horses for Sir Michael and for William Haggas,” he said.
Whyte is continuing to ride track work in Hong Kong and views that as a big plus.
“It’s a huge advantage,” he said. “My hands have never lied to me, they’ve been my go-to point for 23 years in Hong Kong – touch, feel – they don’t lie.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m still fit enough and eager enough to be on the horses. I think the most beneficial thing is not riding the better ones but riding the more difficult ones, and I’ve never had the satisfaction of the last few weeks. I’ve had a few really difficult ones turn the corner and become nice rides and that for me is a real satisfaction.”
Who will ride?
Come race day, Whyte will have to the hand reins to others. Alberto Sanna will get the first leg-up, on Le Panache. The Italian has three mounts for the rookie handler; Regan Bayliss, Vincent Ho, Zac Purton and Chad Schofield are the others tasked with guiding the first cohort of Whyte racers.
“I’m going to be very open-minded and use whichever jockeys are available and whichever jockeys I think are best suited to that particular horse,” the trainer said.
“I don’t have anyone I’ll use more than another. I do have a lot of guys riding work for me, which I’m grateful for, and those guys that are doing the work will certainly get more of the support and the rides when available.”
Whyte was ice-cool at his imperious best as a rider and any sense of a pressure to win early, he said, is not an issue for him going into Sunday.
“I’m a sportsman, I’m a competitor and competition is what drives me. Of course, there’s pressure to succeed but there’s not significant pressure that I have to go to the races (this Sunday) and win. I’m under pressure for my horses, not for me, I want them to run well and I want to see how they cope with everything thrown at them the first meeting.
“There’s always pressure to make things work, that’s my nature,” he added. “I don’t like failure and not being successful, I proved that as a jockey. There’s excitement and anticipation.”