When Belfast-born jockey Fergus Sweeney picked South Korea as his next riding base, little did he know it would help him add another Asian country to his international resume – Singapore.
The well-travelled 40-year-old rider has packed his saddle to many countries in a 24-year-long career that began in England where he first made his name. Besides Korea, he has also ridden in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Turkey, South Africa, Barbados, Dubai and India.
The box for this part of Asia had not been ticked off yet until he moved to Busan in May – incidentally at the same time as former three-time Singapore champion jockey Manoel Nunes, who is, however, based in Seoul where he rode a fantastic five-timer last Saturday.
A first link-up between Fergus Sweeney and Gakbyeolhan in international territory on Sunday, picture Singapore Turf Club
Sweeney may not command the biggest book of rides at Korea Racing Authority’s second biggest racecourse after Seoul, but he has still pulled off a handy strike rate around the 20% mark with 11 winners in 58 rides.
Leading trainer Kim Young Kwan was among those who noticed the Irishman could ride. Support has been growing with the biggest leg-up an offer to partner Gakbyeolhan, a US-bred six-time winner (1200m to 2000m) by Kentucky Derby (2000m) and Preakness Stakes (1900m) winner Big Brown, in the $250,000 Korea Racing Authority Trophy (1200m) in Singapore this Sunday.
“I’ve been riding for Mr Kim lately, and that led to the offer to ride the grey – don’t ask me to pronounce his name - in Singapore,” said Sweeney who, a few hours after landing from Busan on Monday night, was up riding Gakbyeolhan - which means extraordinary in Korean - the next morning at 5am.
“I actually know very little about the horse other than he did very well as a two-year-old and three-year-old at 1200m.
“He’s always shown good form over 1200m, but he’s since been running over 1800m-2000m, and has been doing very well, too.
“I was obviously also very happy and thankful for the opportunity to ride in one of the leading racing centres in Asia. I’ve never ridden in Singapore, let alone visited the country, and I really like it so far.”
Sweeney does not rule out the possibility of trying his luck on a longer term one day. Paperwork for such licences is not unfamiliar to him, he has been living out of a suitcase a fair bit, and he absolutely loves it.
“Obviously, I’ve heard of Singapore racing, but the main reason I’ve been travelling lately is because it got a little stale for me back home,” he explained.
“We race seven days a week in UK, you have to jump in your car and travel to different racecourses. It was getting too much.
“Initially, it was just the Sunday trip to Switzerland which is not too far, then I got invited to a couple of international meetings in South Africa, Czech Republic, Barbados where I rode a winner
“That opened up my horizon, and last winter, I went to India and really enjoyed it. Then came the Korean opportunity, they race two days a week there, it’s great.
“The prizemoney is very good and the horses are of a good standard. It’s also well organised and well run.
“The only thing is weight is a big restriction for me there. I ride at 54kgs and the weight scale there is quite low, so I miss out a fair bit.”
Sweeney, who has around 1,000 wins under his belt with the 2015 Group 1 Betfred Sprint Cup (1200m) win aboard Twilight Son as the career highlight, won’t have only one chance to make his mark at a place he will discover for the first time.
Local trainer Kuah Cheng Tee has booked him for three more rides on the undercard – Mikcaipho (Class 4 Premier race over 1200m), Alaranch (Class 4 Non Premier race over 1000m) and Lucky Red (Restricted Maiden over 1600m).
“Big thanks to the trainer and owners for the extra rides. Hopefully some of them come up before the big race, it’ll give me a chance to ride the track,” said Sweeney.
“I’ve actually ridden on the Polytrack all-weather and I know how it rides. It’s an even surface where you can drop one in, come from anywhere basically, whereas in Busan, you have to be in the first three.”
There was another reason why the Irishman who is also a British citizen was also chuffed with the Kranji stint.
“I miss racing on turf also,” he said with a wry smile.
There is no turf racing in Korea, and Sunday’s Kranji meeting is a mixed-surface meeting with, however, only Lucky Red his only ride on turf while the others are all racing on Polytrack.