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Jockeying for a stable career

Becoming a jockey is very different nowadays compared to times past, when getting in largely depended on who you knew, and apprenticeship lasted as long as the master felt fit.

Thanks to the Apprentice Jockey School, youngsters entering the profession can expect a solid career track, starting with a transparent entry exam and a structured two-year training and career development programme. Entry starts at age 16 with a Form Four qualification, but Amy Chan, Apprentice Jockey School headmistress and manager of the Racing Development Board (RDB), says older, more mature applicants are preferred.

“If they are too young, they just pick up the skills without knowing what is right and wrong,” Chan says. “We need world-class jockeys, but we also need to train a person to be better.”

The school is run by the RDB, which was established by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) in 2005 to help train all racing industry personnel in the city.

The fitness test whittles down the number of applicants from between 300 and 1,000 a year to about 190. The number of trainees finally chosen to enter the school is usually between 12 to 25, depending on suitability and the numbers needed that particular year.

The test consists of 10 stations measuring agility, explosive power, peripheral sight, balance, co-ordination, reflexes and other skills. “The ideal weight for participants is 100lbs [about 45kg]. They have to ride a 1,200lb horse at 60km/h,” Chan says. The second stage is stable orientation to see how applicants behave with horses, and an interview for aptitude.

The training programme, which has been revitalised to train people who can raise standards for the HKJC, covers not only the riding skills needed to become a winning jockey, but also the soft skills and factual knowledge that will benefit trainees in their career.

Wake-up time is at 3:30am to prepare for track work – following the horses’ wake-up time and because of the hot weather in Hong Kong. Trainees also have to participate in cleaning and grooming the horses, so they have to be up early. “After that, they spend their time wisely,” Chan says.

She adds that there are classes in sport science, stable management, diet and weight management, and training. Students learn about financial planning – such as how to buy a property and arrange a mortgage – and even music. They also learn communication skills so that they can interact well with horse owners, trainers and the media.

Former Hong Kong judo representative and apprentice jockey Dicky Lui says “communicating” with the horses is also crucial. “Interacting with the animals can generate a lot of problems, such as how to let the horse feel what you want. You can spend a lot of time thinking about how to solve that,” he says.

“It is because different horses have different personalities. You can’t use the same way to work with them. To overcome this, I have to ride different horses to enhance my riding technique and I have to show my true heart to the horses because they are clever animals.”

Lui’s best memory is his last win in New Zealand when his horse, King Prawn, had problems at the starting gate, but didn’t panic. Instead, King Prawn gradually overtook all the other horses one by one to emerge the champion.  

“We have certificate courses in racing, riding and farriery. Trainees need to touch on different kinds of things. Within those few years, we try to add as much [value] as we can,” Chan says.

For a better understanding of society, community service is also included in the programme, including activities such as visiting prisons and the elderly.

After a nine-month foundation course, the best performers go on to further training, while the rest can pursue other career options in the company.

“We’ll see character, smartness and attitude if they have what it takes to become a jockey. For others, we let them have a plan B, to prepare them not to be too disappointed,” Chan says.

To become apprentice jockeys, trainees have to pass 20 barrier trials and an English test, and receive further training in Australia or New Zealand. Apprentice jockeys with at least 70 wins that pass racing certificate IV can graduate and receive a jockey licence.