Saddling up for starter's orders
Since joining the Jockey Club's Apprentice School at the age of 14, riding has been Matthew Chadwick's life. He is now a 20-year-old professional jockey, working under contract at the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
Born in Hong Kong, Chadwick was adopted as a baby by British parents. They lived in Singapore and Malaysia before returning to Hong Kong in time for Chadwick to start his last year of primary school. He left in the middle of Form Four after being offered a place at the Apprentice School and convincing his parents it was what he really wanted.
Chadwick has a swathe of high-profile wins under his belt. He was champion apprentice jockey of the 2008-2009 racing season, and claimed 48 winners and ranked fourth in the jockeys' premiership in the 2009-2010 season. As of last week, prize money won by him has reached more than HK$87 million in Hong Kong and AU$184,550 (HK$1.5 million) in Australia.
When did you first get on a horse?
I would have been around seven, in Malaysia. It was just the family going for a day out. That's how it started. It probably would have been a Shetland pony. I enjoyed it. I love animals. It just went on from there.
How did you get back into professional riding?
My mum saw a TV advert for the Apprentice School and we were apparently a late application. They let us apply. We came along, and I got through the stages. We thought it was just a summer school. We didn’t know the extent of it.
What was life like at the Apprentice School?
At the beginning, it was a lot of fitness, riding, and hands-on work with the horses - looking after them, grooming them, cleaning them - just everyday work. They were very strict on all of us, and every morning we'd get weighed and they'd keep a check on us. That was only when we first came here, because we were all very young. As you progress, we'd end up in the jockeys' room and you get to see what they do and help them out. It's all a part of the experience - getting to know how they work and their lives. That's what every jockey does all his life - take a bit of everything from everyone to improve, on and off the racecourse. It's the same in everyday life, really.
What is an average day like now?
Normally, I wake up at 4.15am. I get on my first horse just before 5am. I do whatever the trainer wants me to do on the horse. I finish the morning work at about 8.30am or 9am. Mondays, normally entries come out for the week in advance. That involves calling trainers and trying to get rides for race day. Tuesdays, the club organises barrier trials * like a false race, just to train the horses. Wednesdays, it's racing at nighttime. On Thursdays, there are entries for the following Wednesday. Fridays, you've got more trials. Saturday is a rest day for Sunday, and Sunday, you've got races.
Do you have to be fairly disciplined to do this?
You'd want to go to bed early because of the hours you're working. You learn to control your diet and your weight, and you know what your body can take and what it can't. In the beginning, it's discipline, but after that, it just becomes second nature.
This is a business with a lot of money in it.
Every race, you get a riding fee of $1,000. That’s for going out there and putting your life on the line. It’s not a lot, obviously, your life’s worth more than that. But we enjoy the sport, we all love it, we all want to be there. In Hong Kong, we’re probably racing for the second or third best prize money in the world, so we’re racing for decent money. I’ve earned a decent living so far. I’ve won my share of races.
Is it very competitive?
On the track, obviously we all want to win. But off the track, we all go out for dinner sometimes, a lot of us. We all get along. There’s no fighting. There’s competitiveness, but there’s an understanding that we’re not going to bring it off the track. We might have a friendly dig but we’re not going to cut each other’s heads off.
What do you like about this job?
The actual sport of it, the competitiveness of it and the amount of skill that has to go into it. It's very technical also, and there's a lot of mental ability and awareness you have to have to improve, because out there it's not just about riding, it's about who's got the best tactics at times. It's like a marathon runner - they might excel at one part more than the other. You have to try and ride to suit your horse.
What's your advice for others who want to become a jockey?
The problem here now is most of them do it for the money, because they know the prize money's good. I think money should be second preference - at least, it shouldn't be your first. If you think about the money, I don't think you would ever do as well.