Vincent Ho was bleary-eyed when he took his first look at Seoul’s sand track this on Saturday morning. It was a few minutes before 5am, just four and a half hours after his plane’s wheels had touched the runway at Incheon airport.
“I slept for one hour at the hotel,” he said. “I’ll go back and take a nap, for sure.”
Ho was not complaining though. That is not his way. The Hong Kong rider’s career is on an upward trajectory and his solidifying status as a bona fide ‘senior’ rider on his demanding home circuit is due in large measure to his attitude, his dedication to learning his craft, and his fixed desire to be the best he can be.
“Vincent has improved a lot, he has done very well since the middle of last season,” said trainer Me Tsui, for whom Ho will ride Ugly Warrior in Sunday’s (8 September) KOR G1 Korea Sprint (1200m, sand).
The experienced handler is not wrong. Ho, the lad from Clearwater Bay whose dad “worked with computers” and whose mum “worked in an office”, picked up the Tony Cruz Award as Hong Kong’s leading ‘home grown’ jockey last term. He rode a career best 56 wins to finish fourth in the premiership, and, tellingly, collected wins and kept the rides on potential top-line horses – the likes of Rise High, Ho Ho Khan and Golden Sixty.
Tsui revealed that Ho has of late been a topic of positive conversation among Sha Tin trainers: “We say that we don’t need to give Vincent such firm instructions now. He is a good jockey, he is there now, he can make decisions on his own in races.”
That is no faint praise. The fact that Ho will ride both Hong Kong horses – getting the leg up on the Frankie Lor-trained Glorious Artist in the KOR G1 Korea Cup (1800m, sand) – ahead of any one from Hong Kong’s talented pool of expat riders, is further evidence that trainers are confident in his abilities.
Ho, for his part, is unassuming; healthily obsessed, perhaps, with his quest for experiences that will improve his race-riding. This weekend’s first venture to Korea follows on from a successful summer in England, during which time he rode six winners, including one at Ascot’s high-profile Shergar Cup meeting. Several summers riding in England and France have been key to his development.
Vincent Ho at trackwork on Saturday, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
“I love riding in different places, it’s about experience. That’s why I went there, to ride those different horses on different tracks and get that experience, it’s all about learning and improving – doing that makes me think about it all a lot more,” he said.
“Riding over different distances and types of tracks – left-handed, straight tracks – sometimes you’ve got to be patient and wait, other times, like on some all-weather tracks, you have to get going and know when to pick up the horse. That experience is what I take out of the summer.”
And it is that experience allied to the skills and knowledge he has developed in the twin crucibles of Sha Tin and Happy Valley that he hopes will bring his ambitions to fruition.
“I want to ride Group 1 winners,” the former champion apprentice said, “one day, maybe I can be champion jockey in Hong Kong.”
But Ho, 29, believes he and his fellow ‘home grown riders’, those who have graduated from or are working through the famous Hong Kong Apprentice Jockeys’ School, still have yards to make up on the big-name overseas riders who have long dominated the top of the table in Hong Kong.
“I believe we’re still not there yet,” he said. “There are a lot of good jockeys in Hong Kong and at the top we have Joao (Moreira) and Zac (Purton) dominating everything. Although we get on some good rides, it’s still quite difficult to stay on them.
“If Zac or Joao calls the owner, it’s very easy for them to take us off – that’s the Hong Kong way. My goal is to just concentrate on myself and ride the best in the circumstances. Whether people think the horse I’m riding has a chance or no chance, I’ll still always do my best.”
His quest for “best” is in actuality a quest for perfection. Ho delivered two wins on opening day at Sha Tin last weekend, but it was the one that got away that his mind chewed over.
“If Fast Most Furious had won I would be very happy. But two wins, I can’t complain too much,” he said.
“No one can give me as much pressure as I give myself,” he added. “Straightaway, I know what I’ve done wrong. I’ll watch the reply back at home. Sometimes you have to react in a certain way and Hong Kong is tough, you can get things wrong, so you have to learn how to deal with it and prevent making that mistake the next time you face a similar situation. I criticise myself a lot – I try to be perfect every time.”
Hong Kong duo relaxed
Ho is heading into Sunday confident that his two mounts are in good heart as he seeks a first overseas win on a Hong Kong-trained galloper. He partnered Korea Sprint contender Ugly Warrior through a steady canter on the main track before guiding Glorious Artist around the inner training circuit, again at a nice canter.
“Ugly Warrior felt good, he was just curious, looking around a bit, but in a good way. I’m quite confident because he feels good. When he walked back, he was jumping around a little bit. He’s happy,” he said.
“Glorious Artist went well: it was just a quiet day today for him. They took the hood off the last couple of days and today they put it back on so that made a difference.”
As regards the sand track, Ho was satisfied with what he saw and felt.
“It’s not bad,” he said. “The sand is a bit loose but after the rain I think it will get firmer. We just have to see how the horses will handle the kickback. At the moment, you never know until they race, so we’ll try to avoid the kickback as much as possible.”
Getting out of the kickback from gate one means that a sharp start could be the key to Glorious Artist’s chances of success in the Korea Cup.
“If he jumps well like in Hong Kong, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. If he’s fast enough I think we can get off the rail and out of the kick-back. I’ve spoken to a couple of friends who ride here and they say it’s quite straightforward to ride – you just can’t shift ground in the first 100 metres, that’s the rule,” he said.
Ho, mind you, has no intention of shifting ground in his continuing quest to reach the sport’s pinnacle.