Play it again, Sam

Two years ago, jockey Sam Subian was wondering what the future held for him if the meagre support he was getting did not improve dramatically.

Compared to other locals, the Malaysian lightweight rider was actually getting the quantity, but not the quality. Two winners from 173 rides for the 2015 season’s lowest strike rate at 1.16% told the story.

It would not have really mattered in a not too-distant past when one-year renewals handed by the Malayan Racing Association to locals were rubber-stamped every year with nary a glance at their stats. Borderline cases didn’t bring much of a bacon home, but they just kept chipping away as long as they get to keep their iron rice bowl, as they say in Singapore.

Jockey Sam Subian aboard Pentagon, picture Singapore Turf Club

But complacency was well and truly over when the lines were drawn in the sand from 2015. Suddenly, renewals were subject to performance. Sam and many other fellow local battlers were standing on shaky ground.

As soon as the new rule was enforced, Sam was given his first wake-up call - only a six-month relicensing. The 1.16% strike rate made him sink deeper into the quicksand the following year – three months.

He was still better off than those who were given the heave-ho due to below-par performances - but it did little to quell gloomy thoughts about his days in the saddle being numbered.

For those who have followed Singapore racing only recently, Sam has not always plumbed such depths of despair. A decade ago, Saimee Jumaat was the undisputed top dog among the locals, but Sam stole the thunder three times with Perfectum Stable’s Why Be winning the Kranji Sprint, Fischer Stakes and Singapore Three-Year-Old Challenge 1st Leg – all Group 3s in 2006.

The following year, he snagged the Group 3 Stewards’ Cup with big outsider Big Maverick, also prepared by Why Be’s trainer Laurie Laxon, but it’s been lean times since.

To say that such heyday is back would be a fair stretch of the imagination, but Sam has certainly weathered the storm, even if he knows he still sits on the fringe. Last year, he moved two places from 25th to 23rd but it was his haul of seven winners that probably saw him back in the six-month safe haven this year.

The 42-year-old jockey is well aware such fortunes swing like a yo-yo, but he is making hay while the sun shines. He already has three winners under the belt this term, including a fine riding double last weekend with Leadership and Kaiser Bright.

“It’s still slow and steady, but it’s been a better start to the year. I’m still not out of the woods, but things are going much better than the previous years,” said the son of former top jockey Subian Dalwee.

“I get the usual support from David Hill, who has never let me down throughout all these years, and I thank him for that. He doesn’t have a big string, but he sticks with me and I help him out every morning, we work well as a team.

“I also have to thank other trainers like Ah Khoon (Tan Hor Khoon), (Hideyuki) Takaoka, Mok (Zhan Lun) or David Kok, who all help me when they can. I just have to keep working hard and maintain the level of support so the winners will hopefully continue to come.

“Getting only three months (licence) is no joke, it weighs on your mind, and I was not the only one feeling it.”

The likes of Koh Teck Huat, Oscar Chavez, Mohd Zaki and a few more know what Sam is talking about. Proponents back the new rule as a means to get the laggards to buck up, and while debates will rage whether it works for some and not for others, it is the system and jockeys like Sam had to fall in line.

And that is probably why that rare riding double had an ever sweeter taste last weekend.

“It was great to ride a double. I can’t remember the last one (it was actually on March 23, 2013 with Easy Money and Perfect Time, both for Tan), but I had a bit of luck on Sunday as I was not expecting it,” he said.

“Kaiser Bright is one of those horses you have to get going and when things go right, he will be there for you. He had the right attitude on Sunday, and things obviously went right for him.

“He was getting pressure on the outside but at the top of the straight he kicked again. The adrenaline rush kicked in and he just kept going.

“As for Leadership, he was headed but as I had a soft lead on him, I was not surprised to see him kick again along the rails. I went for the stick quite hard – it was almost like old-fashioned Australian riding! – and he responded gamely.”

Sam has been in the game long enough to know a swallow does not a summer make, but he hopes to still keep his place in the sun.

“I have six rides this week - no great chances, but I’m happy to get that kind of support,” he said.

“David gave me two on Friday (Pinyin and Lam Edition) and three on Sunday. I ride two ‘Mission’ horses, and of the two, Secret Mission is back from a long break and will need the run.

“I rode Golden Mission first-up from a long break as well, two weeks ago, and he ran well. I expect him to improve.

“And then there is Public Figure for Ah Khoon. I remember he was one of my two winners of 2015!

“He’s coming back from injury, but he’s a good horse and let’s see how he goes at his first run back.”