From fierce rivalries to respect for Douglas Whyte

16 min read
Who better to describe Douglas Whyte's dominance than his vanquished rivals?

Ahead of Whyte's final meeting on Sunday at Sha Tin, TDN AusNZ spoke to the five jockeys that finished second to Whyte during his 13-season reign as Champion Jockey: Brett Prebble (six-times runner-up), Shane Dye (three times), Zac Purton (twice), Robbie Fradd and Felix Coetzee (both once), plus the Magic Man that couldn't match Whyte's winning sequence, three-time champion Joao Moreira.

Winning a Hong Kong jockeys' championship is a career-defining achievement but Douglas Whyte turned it into a trivia question: "Who was Hong Kong's champion jockey before Douglas Whyte?"

When Robbie Fradd won the title, he was probably entitled to think he could stay at the top for a while, after all, his countryman Basil Marcus had won the previous four championships, and seven of the last eight, so it certainly seemed a system that favoured a frontrunner.

The problem for Fradd was that rising through the ranks behind him was another South African with a steely focus, insatiable ambition, beautiful balance and what would prove to be an unmatched racing brain.

Whyte didn't just win the next championship; he was the only jockey to win for the rest of that decade, and then some, rattling off his record sequence of 13-straight championships, breaking both individual records and, at times, his rivals' spirits along the way. This is the story of Douglas Whyte's 13 championships, told in the words of his greatest rivals.

Douglas Whyte

How Whyte got to the top

The mid-to-late 90s Hong Kong racing scene was, as Fradd called it, "relaxed". The season was shorter, the summer break longer and it was still a place where European jockeys strolled into Sha Tin for a leisurely but lucrative busman's holiday during winter. Bookings for rides were done over a round of golf on acceptance day. The jurisdiction had only just gained its first international G1. It was Hong Kong racing, but not as we know it today.

Robbie Fradd: "He changed the place. Douglas made it so people had to get there and work a lot harder. He set the tone for jockeys that go there now."

"He set the tone for jockeys that go there now." - Robbie Fradd

Jockeys don't have agents in Hong Kong - they represent themselves, and Whyte's meticulous form study and the proactive approach to chasing rides revolutionised the way riders went about their business. Whyte didn't just book rides, he suggested to trainers the next races they should run in, made gear changes, rode trackwork and the necessary tactical adjustments.

Robbie Fradd

Fradd: "Douglas would get home after the races and watch a lot of replays, spot a horse that was unlucky and get on the phone to the trainer. He would book rides in advance, and I think that started a trend. Now jockeys book two or three weeks ahead but before Douglas it wasn't really like that. He started that off and we had to follow suit.

"Douglas had an incredible work ethic, and he would be at trackwork every morning and at home studying every day." - Robbie Fradd

"It's probably been good for Hong Kong racing because when you go there now that's what you have to do; you have to book your rides in advance, you have to work hard and your PR has to be good. You have be professional at all times and you cannot let your guard down. You just have to keep working hard. Douglas had an incredible work ethic, and he would be at trackwork every morning and at home studying every day. It was relaxed until Douglas came along, after that you had to be on the ball."

Fradd finished second to Whyte in 1999-00 before Shane Dye rolled into town. Dubbed Billy Idol as much for his attitude as his rock star looks and spiked blonde hair, the Kiwi had a daring riding style to match. Dye was a dynamo, a fearless tactical mastermind perfectly suited to Hong Kong's tight tracks and handicaps. He also had the support of John Size, but the closest he got to Whyte was 13 wins, twice. In the third season Dye was runner-up, Whyte became the first man to ride more than 100 winners in a season in 2003-04, beating his rival by 37 wins.

Shane Dye: "He was just unbelievable in his drive and determination. People don't realise just how good he was at that time."

How Whyte stayed on top

As stable jockey for Tony Cruz, Felix Coetzee was riding the wave of momentum created by his trainer's then-record 91-win season and a partnership with the great Silent Witness (El Moxie {USA}), who won six races that season. The South African won 81 races but never threatened Whyte, who rode 98 winners.

Felix Coetzee: "Douglas was just so competitive; he was on fire at that stage. He is smart, thorough and ambitious, and that's a hell of a combination for any athlete.

Felix Coetzee

It's never enough for him; he wants more all the time. He could ride three or four winners early in the day, but that wasn't enough, it just fired him up for more. He got more competitive as the day went along."

"He got more competitive as the day went along." - Felix Coetzee

Brett Prebble, fresh off back-to-back premierships in Melbourne and unparalleled success at the spring carnival, arrived full of bravado and soon had designs on Whyte's throne.

As much as Prebble tried to strong-arm his way past his rival with typical Australian brawn, the South African denied him for six straight seasons, re-setting his own record for wins in a season at 114 in 2005-06.

Brett Prebble:: "He didn't like the way I rode, we Australians are very tactical and I used that. I was probably a touch over-aggressive, but that was just my style. He had beautiful balance, it was more about finesse for him than all out aggression. He wasn't necessarily the strongest rider in a finish, but the horses ran for him and he would give the horses a chance to get the most out of them, rather than standing over them to give everything.

"He had beautiful balance, it was more about finesse for him than all out aggression." - Brett Prebble

I watched him and learnt a lot at the start and I just copied him. I was aggressive and got them into position early, and in the end my style of riding suited Happy Valley as well."

Brett Prebble

When Prebble led by 16 late into the 2009-10 season, Whyte went to another level to clinch what he called at the time “the best of my 10 championships”. The title came down to the final meeting of the season, with Whyte prevailing 100 to 99.

Prebble: "He never had that pressure, somebody to push him hard as I did that for those few seasons, I was really pressing him hard to steal his rides. He was so dominant, he could just take whatever ride he wanted for such a long time, until I came along. He handled it though, and proved he was a true champion."

A highlight of Whyte's riding was the way he rode Happy Valley, particularly the way the jockey would balance his mount for an inside run on the treacherous home turn.

"Nobody rode Happy Valley like Douglas Whyte in his prime. He was the best." - Shane Dye

Dye: "Nobody rode Happy Valley like Douglas Whyte in his prime. He was the best. It's a hard track to ride, and Douglas made it look easy. As great as Joao Moreira is, he still hasn't mastered it."

Joao Moreira: "It's a very difficult track and you are always turning. Wide gates are so difficult there, and when you are on the favourite, your rival jockeys know that and they make it very difficult to cross.

Then there is that tight home turn that shoots you out on a leader, especially when the rail is out wide. It means there will always be a run there. Douglas was the one who taught everybody else to be diving into that gap, that the gap will always appear inside the leader.

Joao Moreira

That's what gave him his reputation, obviously when he was champion jockey, he had some of the best horses in hand, but he wouldn't be afraid to take the gap."

Prebble: "He would find a spot before anybody else had even thought about finding a spot. In those tightly handicapped races the shortest way home wins, particularly at the Valley, and he used that."

Dye: "Douglas had a plan A, B, C and D. He did his homework and knew where he wanted to be and exactly how he was going to get there."

Fradd: "Hong Kong is so much about race placement and positioning, getting them in the right spot. I think Douglas' ability to do that came from that time analysing races. In Hong Kong, if you put the horse in the right spot then you have a very good chance of winning. He was very sharp. We were trying to do the same thing, of course, but he just seemed to have that edge on us."

Zac Purton and Whyte's rivalry started as a slow burn. In fact, it probably wasn't even a rivalry at all for the first six or seven seasons after the Australian arrived: Purton was simply Whyte's whipping boy.

Zac Purton: "When I came to Hong Kong, Douglas was obviously the benchmark, he led the way with everything he did and I have tried to replicate him in many of those ways.

He just always seemed to be in the right position, he read races very well, and he did his homework very well. The good jockeys make it look easy, and when I first got here he was making what he did look pretty easy."

Purton finally clinched his Holy Grail with a title in 2013-14, but newcomer Joao Moreira already had him in his sights.

Zac Purton

Heavy is the head that wears the crown

The train spotting stats freaks might ask where Joao Moreira fits into this story: they will point out, quite rightly, that the Brazialian never finished second to Whyte in the championship. Correct, but for all of his statistical dominance, Moreira couldn't match Whyte's sequence of championships either.

Moreira arrived a few months into the 2013-14 season, the campaign during which Purton finally overhauled Whyte.

Key to Whyte finally losing his grip on the championship was the withdrawal of support from top trainer John Size, with Moreira walking straight into the roll as de facto stable jockey for the master horseman upon his arrival from Singapore.

Moreira enjoyed unprecedented popularity and soon smashed Whyte's single season record of 114 with 145 winners in 2014-15, followed by 168 and 171 wins in the next two seasons respectively as he feasted on unrivalled popularity among owners and trainers.

Douglas Whyte at Happy Valley

Yet after three straight championships, and seemingly with the system within his grasp, Moreira lost support, and Purton slowly but surely wore him down to take back the championship. Perhaps Moreira was trying to keep too many people happy, but that was what Whyte, with the skills of a diplomat, was able to achieve for 13 seasons.

"He is brilliant at handling people, keeping them happy and dealing with people – that is his best skill." - Joao Moreira

Moreira: "I think he was one of the few people in the world that would have been able to do what he did. He is brilliant at handling people, keeping them happy and dealing with people – that is his best skill.

Prebble: "The way Douglas handled people and kept so many people happy for so long was amazing. I found that very difficult and I never quite got a handle on that, but he did and I think that helped him stay so successful for so long. He was very persuasive, a very good talker but he could follow it up on the track, what he said he was going to do."

Purton: "To be a champion jockey, it comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure. You have to turn up and perform in every race at every meeting. Particularly here, where this is so much scrutiny placed on every race, you just can't make any mistakes. To have that determination, to be able to do that season-after-season, you have to admire him. Sure, you get better rides, riding the better horses, but there is a lot at stake and you have to make sure you keep getting it right."

Fradd: "His PR was excellent. It meant we had to work on our own PR. He could keep everyone happy, and I think he would take a few rides in each race and choose the best one. At the time, he had done so well that everyone wanted him on their horses, Douglas just took the right horse in the race, the strongest chance, he had to knock back a few people but they didn't seem to mind. I do think Joao was trying to keep everyone happy. "

Douglas Whyte keeping the crowd happy

A tactical mastermind, and master horseman

When it was announced Whyte would be retiring after February 10, it was also revealed that he would become Hong Kong's newest expat trainer. And while this story is about celebrating Whyte's achievements in the saddle, it would be remiss not to ask his rivals: Will Whyte be a success as a trainer?

Prebble: "He will not just be a success; he will be an instant success. One of the ways he was more dominant than Joao, he was more involved in the preparation, placement and training of the horses, I think he helped a lot of trainers winning a lot of races. He was very hands-on. Joao does the hard yards too, he gallops them and rides trials, but not to the level of Douglas.

He is a serious horseman, and a serious competitor; he is just so determined to succeed in whatever he does. That same dedication he showed as a jockey, he will just now channel that into being a trainer."

"That same dedication he showed as a jockey, he will just now channel that into being a trainer." - Brett Prebble

Moreira: "Those excellent communication skills are what will help him most when he becomes a trainer. He is very good at dealing with people and handling people and I think that is going to be a huge advantage for him when he starts training.

I know he has no experience as a trainer, but Douglas is a very intelligent person and he is going to use that intelligence to absorb as much information as he can before he takes over the stables here. I have faith in him. He is going to make it, it might not be right away, but as time goes by, he has a high chance of becoming a successful trainer."

Purton: "I think he will do well, first because he is a fiercely determined person, secondly because he has been in Hong Kong and he has so many great connections. He understands the system and the way things operate here. The club has done the right thing in giving him a license. He has gone over to spend time with the horse whisperer Monty Roberts, he is often spotted out at Beas River riding school, playing around with the horses and doing things with them out there. He has been going to John Moore's stables every afternoon for a few months now, picking his brain and asking how things work. He has a plan to go around the world to work with leading trainers."

Purton will now be in the unique situation of chasing rides from a jockey he famously clashed with on and off the track, and in the media, over the years.

Purton: "Well, our relationship is probably not going to change overnight, we were fierce rivals, and I suppose bitter rivals, but when it was announced he would be a trainer I got his phone number and sent him a message. I congratulated him on his career in the saddle, and on becoming a trainer, and told him to be prepared for me because I am about to start driving him mad for rides.

He messaged back, which was nice, and if I get the chance I will shake his hand at his final meeting. Next season will be business as usual and he will be somebody I am looking to form a partnership with."

Fradd: It's going to be interesting when he starts giving instructions, I hope he is OK! Sometimes when a jockey becomes a trainer they'll say "Oh I would have ridden it this way," but it doesn't always work out like that. It's not going to be easy, but the one thing you know for sure is that he will be professional about it. It's a new chapter and I wish him all the best. It's not easy to go straight from a jockey to a trainer. Knowing him though, he will study, work hard and ask lots of questions, he will be picking the brains of those trainers he works with."

Perhaps the esteem with which Whyte is held was best expressed by Moreira, who, when contacted by TDN AusNZ, needed some time to think about how best to state his gratitude for the foundation laid by Whyte. "Call us back in a little while," he said. "I want to think about how to express this." The Brazilian knows, perhaps now more than ever, that without Whyte, there could have been no Moreira phenomenon.

Moreira: "He has been one of my rivals, but I have to say I am a big fan of his. We as jockeys all know what he has done here, what he has done for us, and for horse racing in general in Hong Kong and South Africa. It is outstanding. It isn't just the numbers, that doesn't express what he has done for racing. He has been an inspiration for a lot of us, in particular the way he handles things off the track. Douglas has taught us all a lot about horse racing."