SOUTH African born jockey Douglas Whyte is suffering the worst season of his career in Hong Kong. After more than 11,000 rides, 13 consecutive HK Jockeys titles, 1,700 winners and stake earnings of a cool HK$1.46 billion, the tall, slim Whyte is struggling.
Here is a shortened version of an interview first published in South China Morning Post last weekend, in which Whyte talks about his recent setbacks.
There’s no bitterness on Douglas Whyte’s tongue as he takes a sip of Sauvignon Blanc and looks down at the tower blocks of a city where racing is king and he has been a god for almost two decades. Forty-five years old in November, Whyte has been the prancing horse on the Hong Kong horse-racing Ferrari – almost synonymous with it, each unimaginable without the other.
“It’s like I’m starting again. This has been the worst season of my 19 years here, no question about that, and the toughest time in my life,” he concedes.
“I’m getting less rides and the overall quality I’m getting is also less. But I’m still too competitive, healthy and fit.”
What he is not doing is retiring.
“Retiring is probably the furthest thing from my mind right now. There’s no way I’d be going out of the game like this.
“I was always mentally prepared to lose the premiership. To win it 13 years in a row took every ounce of everything out of me every year and I could only do that for so long.
“And the guys now will know what I mean. But losing the title hasn’t been as hard as coming to terms with the loss of support.”
The Durban Demon: Not a spent force! (thenational.ae)
Last year, Whyte won the final Group One of the season, the Champions & Chater Cup, on Helene Super Star. He’ll be watching this year’s race from the jockeys’ room.
The one-time automatic Jockey Challenge favourite has found himself under the anonymous, opportunity-challenged heading of “Others” too often more recently.
Whyte says it is all about his backing from owners and trainers fading.
“I know it’s business. At the end of the day, everybody has to run their own business,” he says. “But it has been very disappointing, something that has affected relationships, friendships.”
Ask where the support went and Whyte doesn’t point the finger at his title successors, Zac Purton and an even more dominant Joao Moreira.
Instead, Whyte feels a huge shadow of misunderstanding has been draped across his career.
“Probably, the biggest letdown for me has been reports in the Chinese press that I’m retiring at the end of the season, becoming a trainer and that I’ve already been offered a licence by the Jockey Club,” he says, shaking his head.
“That’s ridiculous. There is no procedure that would allow me to just switch to being a trainer and I’m not ready to train anyway.
“I have applied for a full-season licence for next season and my main mission will be to bounce back from the worst year I’ve ever had.
“This misconception has really damaged my relationships with a lot of the trainers. They look at me and think why should they support me if I’m retiring soon and might be taking their clientele, too.”
Take Whyte away from the racetrack and horses are still a big part of his life. One of his passions is the rehabilitation of ex-racehorses and he has been to the Monty Roberts ‘horse whisperer’ courses in the United States several times.
“And I think the idea has sprung from that,” he says. “It’s the horses that are retired, not me!
“I’ve done the Monty Roberts courses, I take a few ex-racehorses from here to live on my farm in Italy, get them over phobias and problems. They’re the only retirements I’ve ever mentioned and somewhere along the line, there’s been a huge misunderstanding.
“But I want to put it on the record: I am not retiring, I have not been offered a trainer’s licence, I have not put in for one and I have not even spoken to the Jockey Club about it.”
All that said, Whyte does see training in his future and would love it to be here.
“I don’t think I’ll be riding for another 10 years, but I’ve still got five great years in me,” he says.
“What will Douglas Whyte be doing after that? I can’t say. But I feel so much a part of Hong Kong. This place is ingrained in me.
Over the 10 seasons from 2004 to 2015, Whyte’s 6,525 rides won at a rate of just over one in six but when he rode lighter than 117 pounds, that rate improved to one in under four and a half, and under 116 pounds the strike rate was one in three.
The message was clear – if Whyte is light, his horse is right. Now he finds himself taking more light rides that don’t have such a great winning chance.
“My stats with lightweights were good when I could pick and choose, but beggars can’t be choosers,” he grins.
“It has been like going back to the beginning – this year’s been a full circle on my career, even my life. But it hasn’t broken me.”
So retirement is off the menu. Presumably Sports Road will issue Whyte a licence and they all start off zero in September. Thoughts of regaining the throne from Moreira are unrealistic, so what does a successful rebound look like?
“For me, a pass mark would be getting my normal support back,” Whyte says. “To run second or third on a horse, do nothing wrong and the owner and trainer want me on next time. They don’t change jockeys when Joao calls just because it’s Joao calling.”
Whoooaa. Hold your horses, Durban Demon. You never, in those 13 championships, got another rider bumped from a mount you fancied? It’s good to be the king, and that is usually one of the perks.
“Of course. One hundred per cent, I did that too, but there’s no way I had the same power that Joao has now,” Whyte says.
“I don’t expect to have my pick of rides – I’m not in Joao’s shoes anymore. I’ve been there and I’ve done what he does, but I’ve never screwed anyone over, I’ve never really broken bridges to have to rebuild them and as long as I’m doing my work in the mornings, and can fix this wrong idea that I’m about to retire, there’s no reason why I should not be getting support.”
Headline photo: fasttrack.hk.