A racing legend will bow out of the Hong Kong jockeys’ room at Sha Tin on Sunday. More than 22 years after he first walked in, Douglas Whyte will clear his belongings and pack up his saddle for the final time as a professional rider.
“I bet you there’s a queue of them (jockeys) waiting, trying to move into that spot,” Whyte said with a smile on Friday.
“It’ll be hard. I’ve had that gear for a long time and it’s all I’ve ever known.”
The man who won 13 consecutive Hong Kong championships has partnered stars like Ambitious Dragon, Oriental Express, Akeed Mofeed, Indigenous and Glorious Days, accrued an incredible 1,813 wins including Group 1s and Derbies and not a cent less than HK$1,586,280,036.67 in stakes money. He has only seven more rides before it’s over and his life as ‘Douglas Whyte, trainer’ begins.
“I think it’ll be a lot more emotional than last Wednesday at Happy Valley,” he said, recalling the crowd’s warmth and the jockeys’ guard of honour after his final race at the city track.
The South African, 47, has achieved more than he could have imagined in the years since his mother planted before him a tough decision when, as a horse mad boy, he was considering joining his homeland’s apprentice academy.
“My mother tried to make it tough for me: she said, ‘If you stay I’ll buy you another pony but if you go I’m selling the two that you’ve got’. That was at 12 years old, so that’s how much I wanted to be a jockey: I had to give up my ponies and leave home and go and do a five-year apprenticeship. I wasn’t going to let it fail after that decision!” he revealed.
That determination has been evident throughout an incredible career.
“I was fierce,” he said. “I’m still competitive but when I’d set something, when I had that feeling and that hunger when I won the premiership the first time, I knew I was going to do it the second time. I didn’t think I was going to do it 13 times but once I got that hunger and that desire nothing was going to stop me.”
Whyte’s concluding line-up of rides starts with Mr Croissant in race two and continues with Dances With Dragon, Murray’s Partners, Storm Signal, Seven Heavens and Elite Patch. The horse destined to be his last ride is Uncle Steve in the afternoon’s finale, a gelding that coincidentally carries the same brand number - C140 - as the legendary Silent Witness.
An official presentation to mark the occasion will take place with Whyte in the parade ring after race four.
Douglas Whyte, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Ever the competitor, the ‘Durban Demon’ is hoping for a fairy tale ending but acknowledges that this day alone is about more than the win.
“I just hope I get a good send-off,” he said. “A lot of my horses are going to be under the odds and I know there’s going to be expectations from the public.”
Whyte knows all about the sharp end of the Hong Kong punters’ tongues. Any successful rider here must face the lashing when a hot favourite goes down, but they also receive hearty praise when things go their way.
“It’s very important for me to have a winner, that’s my nature, I like to be a winner,” he said. “But it’s not the be-all and end-all because the be-all is my new career: it’s about me being around and the public watching me for the last time.
“The one thing that I’m hoping is that I don’t get the public moaning if I don’t happen to have a winner. A winner’s going to be in here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “it’s very important but it’s about the day going well and I hope everyone appreciates having watched me.”
Whyte has been bowled over by the reaction to his retirement announcement.
“Overwhelming, to say the least,” he said. “The phone calls and the congratulations and people you thought wouldn’t have approached and congratulated me, so it’s been fantastic.”
And that’s as it should be for the most successful rider in Hong Kong history, the jockey who is credited with more-or-less developing the way the circuit now functions.
“Now you can plan rides up to a month in advance but when I came the entries would come out and then you’d pick up the phone and call trainers - they wouldn’t tell you what they’d entered, you wouldn’t know,” he explained.
“I worked the system out pretty quickly. I would get annoyed because the entries would come out and there’d be three or four in a race and I’d been working them every day and I had no input. So I’d choose which one I’d ride and the trainers understood. But I thought there had to be a better system so I started asking and the trainer would tell me which races they were entering horses in.
“From there it caught momentum and in my first premiership I started writing down every one, the days they were going to be running, so if anyone else asked me to gallop a horse I’d ask where they were going.
“I hope I changed it and I hope I changed it for the better.”
Whyte picks out for mention - when pressed - his epic last-gasp 100-99 premiership victory over Brett Prebble in 2009/10 and London News’ QEII Cup win that really set the ball rolling back in 1997.
“But every winner’s been special,” he said, “especially the ones where I’ve had input where you’ve changed the gear or you’ve changed the distance or I’ve asked them to work it differently. Those are the ones where you go home and get a lot of satisfaction.”
John Size and Whyte enjoyed plenty of big days together, including with Fay Fay in the 2012 Hong Kong Derby and the handler paid tribute to the former champ.
“He’s been one of the best riders in Hong Kong since I’ve been here and he rode for me for 10 years. I think that everything’s been said as far as ability as a jockey,” he said.
“He’s proven to be a fantastic competitor over a long period of time and that’s difficult to do. The most difficult thing in any athletic sport is to stay at a level for a period, so to be champion jockey 13 times is unimaginable but he actually has done it.”
Size has one of his current BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) prospects in action on Sunday’s card with Enrichment (122lb) opposing the Whyte-ridden Dances With Dragon (120lb) in the Class 2 Daffodil Handicap (2000m). The four-year-old ran a sound second to the talented Good Standing over a mile last week at his third Hong Kong start.
“He looks a little bit one-paced so I think the mile might prove to be a little bit short for him - hopefully he’ll go better at 2000 metres. The horses with a turn-of-foot, the quicker ones, will have an edge on him in a finish,” Size said.
And of the quick turnaround from his last race, he added: “He’s been in work for a while and he’s had a few trials and a couple of races now - I think he’ll cope with that alright.”
The field also features Derby aspirants Tigre Du Terre (124lb), Charity Go (123lb), Packing Warrior (123lb) and Heavenly Thought (123lb).
Sunday’s 10-race card starts at 1pm with the Class 5 Azalea Handicap (1200m).