Robin Oakley

The high and lows of a Hong Kong jockey

‘In Hong Kong there’s no hiding place’: Neil Callan, back in the UK after ten lucrative years in Hong Kong. [Catherine Ivill/Getty]

You can take a jockey who has ridden there out of Hong Kong; it’s a lot harder, I reflected, after a chat at Newbury with Neil Callan, taking Hong Kong out of the jockey. Even though this is his second season back on home territory after spending ten years in that racing pressure cooker, Neil still watches every one of the 18 races a week at Sha Tin and Happy Valley and remains grateful for what Hong Kong did for him. He went out there as a good jockey – you don’t get invited to take up a Hong Kong contract unless you are in the top echelons elsewhere – and he came back a better one.

Back in the UK, Neil Callan, the champion apprentice in 1999, had been in the top five for some years. In 2005 and 2007 (when he rode 170 winners) he was runner-up in the jockeys’ championship although, ever the realist, he adds that Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders led him by a solid margin. When he first went to Hong Kong on a short-term trial he found it hard, taking six weeks to ride his first winner. After his first full season he was in two minds, but then, while taking a week’s holiday in Thailand on the way back to Britain, he received a call. With injuries and suspensions they were short of jockeys for the next fixture. Would he come back for one more weekend? He did so, bashed the phone to trainers seeking spare rides and collected nine in ten races. Two were winners, four came second and only one finished out of the first four. He phoned his wife Trish to say, ‘I’m coming back’, and the family moved to the former colony in 2014.

For a jockey the lifestyle is altogether different: there are only two meetings a week and you don’t spend hours on the road between the 35 Flat racing tracks in the UK staging racing every day of the week or pleasing trainers across the land by turning up to ride work.

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