By Hans Ebert
It might have been the night of The Big Rain, but that didn’t dampen the mood of all those who were there at Happy Valley Racecourse- the regular Happy Wednesday fans, and those who had travelled on The Big Bird to be part of Hong Kong International Races Week.
A few years from now, we’ll probably look back on this race meeting with the highlight being the Hong Kong International Challenge, as the day Gavin Lerena arrived- arrived to continue the great tradition of South African riders who have come here without any fanfare, without needing selfie sticks and pogo sticks and playing the carnival barker- but letting their riding do the talking for them.
On Wednesday night, Gavin Lerena talked very loudly and we stopped and listened. “Who’s Gavin Lerena?” quickly turned into, “Wow! That Gavin Lerena can ride!”
By winning the International Jockey Challenge- and on one of the most challenging and idiosyncratic tracks in the world with the going being yielding- it brought back memories of another relative unknown winning this title a couple of years ago. His name was Joao Moreira and that win turned out to be his passport to being part of Hong Kong’s United Nations Of Racing. Ask the Magic Man about the significance of winning that title and he’ll happily tell you about it.
From Bartie Leisher through to Basil Marcus, the incredible thirteen year reign as Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey by Douglas Whyte, the great partnership of Felix Coetzee with the great Silent Witness and Tony Cruz to the success out here of Anton Marcus, and Anthony Delpech with his association with the very much underrated Vengeance Of Rain, South African riders have succeeded in Hong Kong by almost flying under the radar.
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Again, they’ve always let their God-given talents, fine-tuned at South Africa’s famed Jockeys Academy, do their talking for them. There’s a discipline, competitiveness, and professionalism they carry with them with great pride and a sense of responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility, Spider-Man.
At the post-race party at Adrenaline- and those who didn’t make the time to make it, missed out on understanding why Hong Kong racing needs lateral thinking instead of one-dimensional tunnel vision – Lerena made a low key appearance. Whether he will be back here on a more permanent basis, only time, and the HKJC Licensing Board will tell. But amidst all those there- racing executives from around the world, the international racing media, racing personalities like Zac Purton and his wonderful parents, the great Tony Cruz, Hughie Bowman, trainer Kris Lees, Ryan Moore, and a cameo by Joao Moreira- Gavin Lerena worked the room well- and with zero phoniness. Like the communication skills of Joao Moreira, he was approachable and likeable. Immediately.
There’s that word again: Likeable. In any industry, likability gets you far. In Hong Kong racing, it gets you further. Those who still don’t understand this, and continue to remain aloof, insular bores with a warped sense of self-importance while laughably being legends in their own lunchtime, they can expect a bumpy ride ahead. Hong Kong in 2015 doesn’t suffer fools gladly- especially foreign fools. For Gavin Lerena, the timing is right, and it’s smooth sailing. His ship has come in.