Jim Rohn is credited with saying, “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary”.
With our social, political, economic and security challenges, risking the unusual is simply part of getting through the day for the average South African. While it certainly keeps life interesting, the lack of formal infrastructure and resources the rest of the world takes for granted, means it takes an above average amount of time, effort and energy to get even the most ordinary thing done. The payoff, though, is a bunch of folks who are determined, resourceful and think on our feet as a way of life. Take all that and put it in an environment with opportunities and the resources readily available to take advantage of them, and we tend to be anything but ordinary.
In the racing context, it requires an effort of herculean proportions simply to get out of the country. Those who manage, need to be possessed of the fortitude and self-belief to stand eyeball to eyeball with the world’s best. The best among us dig deeper still – and refuse to blink.
Douglas Whyte arrived in Hong Kong a relative unknown at the start of the 1996 season. Not only did he survive, he had the temerity to thrive in the crucible of the toughest stage of one of the toughest professions on earth, ascending to the Championship throne in the 2001/01 season and keeping an iron grip on it for an extraordinary 13 consecutive seasons.
As he stands on the threshold of his debut as a trainer, we reflect on a remarkable career and share his thoughts on the new challenge that lies ahead.
Building A Legend
“I remember the day I arrived in Hong Kong,” he reflects. “I never had any intention to stay so long. I had been asked a few times by people in Asia to apply for HK. Eventually I said OK, thinking in a year or two I might be afforded an opportunity. Lo and behold, the reply came back two weeks later: ‘you’ve got a three month contract starting in September’. Sometimes fate takes a hand,” he says wryly. “I was stable jockey to David Payne and remember discussing it with him and his big owner Laurie Jaffee. We made a decision to go for three months, then I’d be back and everything would be swell.”
Arriving in September 1996 a relative unknown, Douglas posted his first win aboard the Wong Tang-ping-trained Fireball. He kept finding the winner’s box and by the end of his contract, he’d ridden 29 winners. “Those first three months kind of set me up. I’ve always believed, and still believe, if you don’t take opportunities with open hands, you will never make a success of yourself going forward. You’ve always got to find a challenge, and better yourself and if you keep the ball rolling and keep momentum going.”
Back in South Africa, a strapping chestnut colt named London News was burning up the turf. He belonged to Laurie Jaffee who had international aspirations for the horse and Douglas got the ride. “He won the Queen’s Plate and Met and got invited for QEII in Hong Kong. I tagged along with him, fortunately. When I won the QEII, I got called in and they said do I want to stay for the remainder of the season? I said absolutely. Twenty-two years later, I’m still here.”
“It was scary when my wife Nicky and I moved over. I remember being picked up at the airport and dropped at a hotel – our apartment was not ready – thinking what have we done? There weren’t many westerners around in those days and the first week I was so homesick, I was ready to go home. But I thought no ways, I’ve committed and I’m going to stick it out. Thank God I did – it turned into best time of my life.”
A Stubborn Heart
They say the universe falls in love with a stubborn heart and Douglas is living proof. “It’s amazing when I think back. You get a lump in your throat, really to think how you came here and how Hong Kong has embraced me and I’ve made it home, but if I commit to something, there’s no turning back, I will make it happen, no matter what. You can drag me under water for a while, but I will find my up to breathe.”
It is that extraordinary determination, coupled with an unshakable self-belief that has made him such an incredible success story. “It was tough, but I always knew I was going to beat the system and become champion,” he says matter-of-factly. “Once I did, the dream was to beat Basil (Marcus)’s record. That became an absolute ambition and a drive and a goal and once I’d beaten Basil, I thought I have to keep going. I wanted to set another record and it just became an obsession and absolute focus. I just remember every day, the work ethic, the planning, the … everything,” he finishes, after a pause. “It was a lot of work, but the harder you work, the luckier you get.”
It took a lot of both to achieve twenty-two years at the top of one of the most competitive racing centres in the world. Thirteen consecutive titles is hard to imagine and will be harder still to emulate. If one is measured by the company you keep, perhaps the best way to put his achievements into context is that it required a battle royal from Zac Purton, acknowledged one of the world’s best, to finally end his Championship reign in 2014. “Everything has a shelf life and mine was a bloody long one,” Douglas reflects. “It was always going to happen, but it was good while it lasted and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
On His Own Terms
Douglas rode for five more seasons, concluding his riding career as Hong Kong’s most successful rider with a total of 1,813 winners when he hit the jockey room showers for the last time on 10 February 2019 at Sha Tin.
“I always swore I’d walk away on top and when I wanted to, that I would never be dictated to. When I got beat eventually in the premiership and Joao arrived, I had two really testing years. If I look back now, those were probably the two best years of my life in the sense that they grounded me. You go from high to low and suddenly you have to pick yourself up and prove to people what you’re all about. I think if you can do that and your character can show, which it did, you can walk away with head held high. I think I gave it my all, it was a great ride.”
For someone as competitive as Douglas, the decision to retire – and when to retire – could not have been an easy one. “When I was riding all those winners and being champion, I never dreamed that I was going to train one day. When you’re riding the crest of a wave, you think you’re invincible, and that you will ride for the rest of your life, you don’t plan for the next step of your career. I could probably have pushed myself for another good three years,” he admits, “but I’ve got my fair share of injuries and I knew if I did that, it would spell the end and I would have had to find somewhere else and I didn’t want to leave Hong Kong.”
“Those two years when I had a bit of a bad run changed my whole life. I started to think of different avenues I could take where I could still be around horses, still be in Hong Kong and still be competitive. I’ve always watched horses train and seen them blossom, so I’ve always been on top of things from that perspective. When this opportunity came up, it was a challenge, but it was not a hard decision to make.”
Why not opt for a nice, quiet retirement somewhere? “It’s just a desire that’s instilled in me. I hate failure. I love competing. The pressure, the drive to get things done is probably what gets me to the track every day. And the love of horses. They are my number one priority. If not for my input with trainers, and having that significant part of making decisions with the trainer on what to do and how to do it, don’t think would be where I am. It gives you lot of satisfaction when you’ve offered a small piece of advice and the trainer listens to you and it happens to work. That’s what kept me going here – I never stagnated and was always trying to better myself in some way, shape or form. What I’ve learnt, particularly from working around the yards for the last two years, has been unbelievable. Now it’s on to the next challenge of my career – producing winners from the ground.”
The transition has been carefully managed. Douglas bowed out at the Sha Tin meeting on 10 February 2019. Why not complete the season? “It was the club’s decision,” he explains matter-of-factly. “It’s actually quite scary – the day they chose for me to retire was the day my dad died and the same day my daughter was born.”
Douglas embarked on an intensive three month world tour, including stints in England and Australia in particular, to work with and learn from some of the best in the business. He explains, “When Tony Cruz decided to become a trainer, they agreed for him to work abroad for three months and I followed the same protocol. It was clever – I made a lot of connections and learnt a helluva lot on the way. It’s opened lots of doors and given me a solid foundation for my future.”
That future starts now.
Back from his travels, Douglas has hit the ground running, canvassing for support, acquiring stock for his string and getting them settled and ready for the season ahead. He has been allocated a barn in Sha Tin’s tranquil Olympic stables. Laid out over ground level and with access to a walker and turnout space, it feels more like a traditional English yard and Douglas concurs. “It’s a beautiful site and the Club has been fantastic in upgrading the yard.”
Are there any special concessions from the HKJC in terms of getting started? “No, you’re given a license and you’re on your own. You start from the ground and work your way up, same as with your jockey’s license,” he grins and one gets the feeling he’s relishing the challenge. “It’s been fun picking horses and assessing them from the ground. It gives you a completely different perspective looking at them in the sales ring and deciding which ones you see yourself working with in the morning and looking forward to watching them transform. I’ve had a lot of support from people who I’ve been associated with during my career and the trust that owners have placed in me has been fantastic. It means a lot and it helps you sleep at night starting out with people you have built a good relationship with over the years.”
Douglas saddles seven runners on the Sha Tin card on 1 September and we wish him the very best with his debut.
There may be few certainties in life, but one fact is absolute – Douglas Whyte has never settled for being ordinary. When the gates crash open on the new season this Sunday, the competition had better be looking over their shoulders.