Douglas Whyte still thinks he has a lot to prove in horse racing, the sport he has dominated for more than a decade.
Mr. Whyte is also the first jockey in Hong Kong to ever break four digits in career victories and has been champion jockey for the past 11 seasons—a title retained Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse to conclude the 2011 racing season.
But he says it’s the pressure to perform, for both the horse owners and the punters who bet on him, that drives him. Mr. Whyte sat down with The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Chow last week to talk about how he got into racing, his thoughts on the past season and why he doesn’t hang out with other jockeys. The following interview has been edited.
My favorite moment this season was winning the Queen Elizabeth Cup with Ambitious Dragon. He’s a champion in his own right. His normal jockey was away and I picked up the ride. I was drawn [to start] very wide, on the outside. I had everything to lose. It was my first time riding him. The pressure was enormous. But I told the owner and trainer that I was going to miss the start and go last to the rail and take my chances. They were totally gobsmacked. And that’s how I did it, and he won it convincingly. I pulled off a big win when a lot of people didn’t think I could do it.
I normally work with the horses every morning. Once I get on them, I can feel their temperament, their action. I can sum up a horse by sitting on them for a couple of minutes. I can feel … if he’s aggressive, bullied, or just coaxed along. You can feel the temperament and attitude. It’s a feeling you get from experience and love of the animal.
My dad was a successful jockey but he was forced to retire because of weight problems. He put me on a horse when I was 2½ years old and I’ve been riding ever since.
I went to jockey academy in South Africa. But I wanted to start traveling and gain some international experience. I went to Singapore for a few international race meetings [starting in 1996]. And when I was over there, one of the reporters asked me, “Why don’t you apply [to race in] Hong Kong?” At the time, Hong Kong seemed too big, too much for me.
I put in an application for a three-month stint in Hong Kong. I had 26 winners in that first stint [in September 1996]. Then I went home for six months. I got on to a very good horse called London News who was our champion in South Africa. He was invited to come out to Hong Kong to race the Queen Elizabeth II Cup. And we won.
The club asked me to stay on, and I’ve never left. It’s been 13 years now. I love Hong Kong. It’s part of me; I’m part of the city. It’s full of pressure, hype. It’s full of challenges. If I was racing in another jurisdiction, or in one that wasn’t as competitive, I’d be bored.
My goal [this year] was to maintain my premiership title. Last year, it was almost taken away from me. It was probably my toughest and best comeback to maintain it. That was a traumatic time. I was suspended far too often for causing interference. I was trying to get into gaps that probably were on the small side. I was 12 winners behind with five meetings to go. It looked like I was done and dusted. I don’t know where it came from, but I managed to pull it off and I won by one victory. I don’t want it to ever be so close like that again.
A good horse makes a good jockey and a good jockey makes a good horse. But when it comes to bad horse, it’s 70% jockey and 30% horse. A good jockey can honestly help a bad horse win a race, with positioning, pacing, tactics. But a lot of jockeys will fold under pressures of a big race. A horse can feel and sense it.
I don’t socialize with other jockeys purely because it makes my job easier. A lot of jockeys get offended with me because I’m so competitive. If I’ve a chance of winning, I’m going to do everything to do to beat you. But when you socialize with jockeys and become friends, it becomes difficult sometimes to not give up a bit of space for them. I don’t want any of that. The race track is where I do my job. And it makes my job a lot easier if I don’t socialize.
For me, the end of the season is probably more important. A lot of jockeys come to the end of the season and they’re tired, and they can’t take the heat. I love the challenge, and at the end, it’s when I even get better. That’s when punters are at their best. They’re really looking for you to provide. When I come back, they’ll remember how I finished, and they’ll be a little bit more forgiving at the beginning, but they’ll know I’ll be there for them at the end, finishing off with a bang.
What keeps me here? The place itself. It’s the most professional, one of the biggest racing jurisdictions in the world. Sure, the money’s fantastic in Hong Kong. The money in Australia, Japan, America: It’s all very good. But it’s not necessarily about the money. It’s the importance of horse racing here and the importance Douglas Whyte has in the public and the fans. They love it and love what I do. I appreciate it. It’s something that will be difficult for me to walk away from.
As long as my body and mind will allow me to go, I’ll be out there. In Hong Kong, I’ll never be here if I’m not in the top three. I’ve too much respect for the place. After that? I haven’t even thought of that. Hong Kong is my present and my future.