Douglas Whyte was born on 15 November 1971. After a successful South African career, he relocated to Hong Kong in 1996 and has been there ever since. He has been Hong Kong Champion jockey a staggering 13 times in succession, rode six winners on a card on 7 April 2013, holds the record for career wins in Hong Kong (1612 as at the end of last season), won the QEII Cup 3 times, had his best season in 2005/06 when he clocked 114 wins and he recently took his 10,000th ride, which was a winner.
Tell us a little about you?
I grew up in Joburg and have 3 sisters. My dad was of the opinion he’d keep trying till he got a son. Lucky for my mom I finally came along on the 4th attempt!
How did you get into racing?
I was put on a horse at the age of 3 and have never got off, really. It’s in my genes. My dad was a champion jockey in Johannesburg and rode with the likes of Tiger Wright, Roy Curling, and Robbie Sivewright, to name a few. I never got to see him ride, unfortunately. Weight got the better of him and he’d given up by the time I was born.
He built a steam room and sauna in our garden to help him keep fit. I’d go in there with him and watch him sweat. I used to go to the racing stables with him every weekend. He’d put me up on a horse and I’d watch track work – he was my biggest influence.
He passed away when I was 9 and I started show-jumping. Thanks to Mom she invested in a pony for me and I used to travel to the Rand Show, Welkom, SA Junior Champs, etc., but at the age of 13 I had to make a decision – sell the ponies and become a jockey or stay home and carry on.
I joined the Academy when I was 14 and did my 5 year apprenticeship. I spent the first 3 years in Durban, but I only had 7 winners. I moved to Joburg and finished my last two years as champion apprentice. I rode 272 winners in my apprentice career. Then I moved back to Durban to be stable jockey for David Payne. I rode for him for 4 years and we had tremendous success.
Felix Coetzee, Muis Roberts and Jeff Lloyd. Being able to watch and learn from riders of that calibre had a huge impact and has been a huge influence and inspiration. I was kit boy to Muis Roberts and Felix Coetzee and Felix is still one of my best friends.
Tell us a about your QEII win on London News.
I don’t think people realised how difficult it was to travel back then, but everything just fell in to place as if it was synchronised. London News arrived, he won and broke the track record. Back home, people organised champagne breakfasts to watch it – it was like winning the WC rugby. Alec Laird, who is also a very good friend, did an outstanding job. To have a friend as a trainer and a horse as good as he was – it was fantastic just to be part of that bit of history. The club asked me to stay on full time and I did. I’ll have been here 18 years at the end of this season.
Tell us a little about Hong Kong and why you enjoy it there so much?
It is an energetic, vibey place, but it is not very forgiving. You have to be on top of your game every day, every meeting. If you don’t come here with that frame of mind, you’re not going to make it. But I love the pressure and the competition. That’s what drives me. I don’t get bored here. I think the day I don’t enjoy the pressure and what I do every day is the day I leave Hong Kong.
I owe Hong Kong a lot, particularly as a jockey. It has provided me with many opportunities, a fantastic career, lifestyle and more so than anything, friends. My children were born here. Hong Kong is home for me now.
Why are you called the Durban Demon?
It was just a freak thing. They like to give you nicknames here – I originally had 2– Winning Machine and Durban Demon. Demon has two connotations – most people associate it with being evil, but it also implies the ability to perform magic. One day I rode 4 or 5 winners and they came up with the Durban Demon –it stuck with the English writers.
Why is racing so successful in Hong Kong?
There is a lot of pressure from all sides to make it work, but the club does a fantastic job. They set very high standards, so they can market racing on the basis that they offer the best horses, the best jockeys and the best information and make it as fair as possible for the punter. You can go onto the website and find out anything about any horse– trials, veterinary work – everything is out there for you to see. I think that’s very important. The punter has to believe in the club and I think they do.
The PRO and management are impeccable, they market racing well and they constantly work to upgrade the facilities. It’s all about the punter and public. They’re forever putting everything back into the game. The public sees that and wants to be part of it. It’s a privilege for them to go racing.
Is it as strict as it looks?
They set the rules and we all live by them. It is very black and white – there are no grey areas. The Stipendiary Stewards are phenomenally strict. You follow the rules or you’re out. There is no room for error and there are no second chances. I agree with it because expectations are very high. With the stake money and punting being as high as it is, they want the best and they expect you to be the best. That’s what drives me. To be the best.
Has being in Hong Kong shaped your riding?
I am my biggest competitor. I don’t like making mistakes and when I do, it takes a long time for me to forgive myself. Constantly riding against the best, being amongst the best, obviously moulds you and makes you lift your game. It means you have to be that much more precise and professional all the time. It’s unforgiving and rightly so. As I said, there is a lot of money and a lot of expectation resting on what we do.
I’m over 40 and with the younger guys coming in, I’ve had to lift my game even more. I’m not worried about my age – I’ve got the brain to work out things differently to when I was 20 or 30. I am a more finely tuned, finely balanced individual and that has come through experience, success, defeat and riding for the best and against the best.
Most of all though, I owe everything to horses. They are incredible animals and the feeling of a horse giving its all is the same whether you’re riding a Grade 1 or a Class 5. Without horses, I wouldn’t be Douglas Whyte.
How did you meet Monty Roberts?
I originally went with Felix and then went back again this year with my daughter who is 14 and in love with horses. Monty is an amazing man with an absolute passion for horses and animals. If I can bring up my children to love horses and animals as he does, then I’ve done my job. He has reinforced my passion for horses and how much we owe them for everything they do for us. Horses are athletes and they are bred to race and it is appalling that humans can become so demanding and brutal in order to win at any cost. We are not entitled to demand anything. They’re out there to do their best, the same as we are. We need to respect the animal and work with them and they will reward us.
What are the best parts of the job?
Success – that’s what it all about!
People talking from their pockets! The expectation and pressure is pretty high because there’s a lot of money at stake. I have a lot of followers and if I have a bad day so do they. There’s no room for error. Sometimes things don’t go to plan and you get upset, but you have to move on. It’s all about the next ride. You can’t take your last ride to the parade ring with you for the next horse. The quicker you get over one ride, the better you’ll do on the next one. I’m always trying to produce results, but every sportsman has an off day – it’s a part of the job that you have to learn to accept. As they say, racing will tame tigers. The sooner you adapt and accept it the better. The pressure used to get to me, but it’s made me mentally and physically stronger as a jockey and as a competitor. Pressure and competition now drives me.
Who is the toughest jockey you’ve ridden against?
Felix Coetzee. He is ruthless! I’ll never forget a finish I rode against him in Bloem. I was travelling well and was going to win. I looked over and saw Felix, throwing absolutely everything into it, so much so that I ended up with a few welts on my arm. I’d never seen such focus and determination. He beat me and just after the line, he looked over as if to say ‘you’ve still got a few things to learn, son’. Some guys may have got angry, but I learnt that it’s do or die. When those gates open, there are no friends – mutual respect yes, but until you hit the line, it’s just you and the horse and the job you’ve got to do. You ride to win. There’s only one Felix Coetzee, thank goodness!
This is the first year since 2001 that you’re not starting the season as Champion Jockey. Does that take the pressure off, or simply sharpen your appetite?
I dominated for a phenomenal length of time and I made history, but it had to happen at some point and I prepared myself for it. Look at Federer – all of them – the stats don’t allow you to dominate forever. But it doesn’t take any pressure off and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m giving up.
Any thoughts to life beyond the jockey room?
Retiring and growing old with my wife on our farm in Italy. But as long as I’m physically and mentally capable, I will keep riding. I love horses and what I do. When I feel I’m not the Doug Whyte I know I can be, that’s the day I will retire. But I certainly intend to be around for a while longer.
Hong Kong also loves Doug Whyte and ‘Home’, the theme song for their 2014 grand opening has been dedicated to him. Check it out!