By Hans Ebert
He’s looking happier, he’s riding winners with the deceiving ease that’s been his trademark, and there’s that steely determination expected of the jockey everyone agrees is the consummate professional.
Some say, Douglas Whyte is back, to which I ask, When did he leave? Last season had its ebbs and flows for this legendary- and legendary is a word often used too lightly- South African horseman who arrived in Hong Kong for the 1997-98 season a complete unknown, like a Rolling Stone, and ruled the Jockeys Premiership for thirteen consecutive years. But that’s the past.
Right now, he and Nash Rawiller are third on the premiership table, he’s making more than the most of the rides that come his way, and seems out to prove that it ain’t what you have, it’s the way that you do it- not that he has anything to prove to anyone. He’s done it all.
Sure, Douglas and I have had our ups and downs. Being too close to anyone makes one guarded. And so it’s been with my long term friendship with Douglas Whyte. Long term relationships simply don’t last in Hong Kong, especially in horse racing, but I would like to think that our’s has survived because of being able to say something very simple: Sorry. Still friends?
All it took to get things back in track was a phone call asking to get together for a drink. And when we met at the Blue Bar of the Four Seasons, always our favourite watering hole, together with another very good mutual friend in Felix Coetzee, below with Whyte, there were no apologies, just the usual friendly banter. Normal service had resumed.
Were we, as one jockey teased on social media after seeing a couple of tweets between us, “Besties again”? Despite almost a year of both sides needing to focus on personal priorities, nothing was going to erase almost twenty years of friendship. Often- too often- we tend to not put a premium on friendships that have stood the test of time despite the efforts of those who’ve tried to derail it for their own self-serving agendas. And Douglas Whyte has had his detractors along the way who have wanted to see him fall and fail. With great power and success comes responsibility and jealousy, Spider-Man. To his credit and great human resolve, he has risen above it all. Again, as current and former key executives at the HKJC and those overseas have said, “Douglas Whyte is the consummate professional.”
During the 2013-14 season, Zac Purton brought an end to Whyte’s thirteen consecutive Hong Kong Jockey Premierships. It was Purton pulling off the almost impossible through sheer determination, talent and that burning hunger to win. It was a phenomenal effort by The Zac Attack and one which should be constantly applauded. It was a watershed moment for a tremendously gifted jockey at the top of his game.
Who knows, but Douglas Whyte might have even been relieved that the baton had been passed. Heavy is the head that wears the crown. And for thirteen years, the Durban Demon fended off all pretenders to the throne, and the usual backstabbers who wanted to see his downfall. His on and off-course rivalry with Brett Prebble- they’re friends these days- added to the competitiveness. This was especially evident during the 2010-2011 season when the Melbourne Cup winning jockey was all but home to take out the premiership when leading by fifteen winners and only a handful of meetings to go. The maths were not in Whyte’s favour. But he wasn’t counting. We were.
When we would meet during that time, it was tough to ask the question, but it had to be: “No chance to catch up?” The reply was always the same: “No problem, bud. I’ll beat him.” And he did. Every time he did the seemingly impossible by cutting back Prebble’s lead, the girl I was living with at the time- a Dane who knew nothing about racing- would whoop it up. She was a huge fan and was happy for him. And being creative, she was adamant that Douglas should have his own website, his own line of jewellery and become a brand. Smart girl. Douglas Whyte should be a brand. As for that season, Prebble blinked first. Sensing blood, Whyte went in for the kill and won the premiership by one winner.
And then along came the new, improved Zac Purton- a raw talent in Australia with enormous potential, who grew up fast in Hong Kong, and is today a great ambassador for the sport and the HKJC.
Did he learn and mature and improve his people and personal presentation skills by watching Whyte? In time, he might say he did. But during that particular season of the bitch, the constant slanging was tough to stomach. It was possibly all new to Zac. And egged on by an Aussie racing media wanting to hear more and more about the two riders well-known dislike for each other, Purton played into their hands with quotes not worthy of a Premiership winning jockey. Whyte, he said nothing. If anything, he said he was beaten fair and square and complimented Purton. And then out of left field- Singapore to be precise- came the arrival of Joao Moreira, who was to change the Hong Kong Jockey Premiership- and racing landscape- forever.
After South African jockeys having owned that premiership for twenty one consecutive years- the seven year reign of Basil Marcus, one strange year when Robbie Fradd won it, Whyte’s thirteen years, and the one year that belonged to an Australian- the door opened for the mercurial Brazilian to walk in and make the most of everything handed to his enormous talent on a silver platter.
Among these changes saw the end of the longtime and hugely successful partnership between Whyte and trainer John Size. Neither have talked about the split. It just happened. The changing of the guard had taken place.
The rest, as they say, is history. It was like Yoko coming between John and Paul and the end of the Beatles.
What’s next for Douglas Whyte, who’ll be a fit, competitive and youthful 45 next month? Last season, those with short memories were calling him yesterday’s man- someone who had made a great deal of money in Hong Kong whose time was up, and was simply going through the motions. Anyone who knows anything about Douglas Whyte knows that the day he stops giving his best, he’ll move on. He certainly doesn’t need the money, and he couldn’t have taken the guttural booing from the peanut gallery well. Yet, he held his head high and got on with life by giving the best he could. That’s what anyone can do: Give their best. And if the best still isn’t good enough, well, that only shows up weak people.
One still cannot understand why Douglas Whyte’s achievements are not in the Guinness Book Of World Records. Gawd knows they should be- the thirteen consecutive premierships, his win in 1997 for South Africa aboard London News in the Queen Elizabeth 11 Cup, and that memorable Hong Kong International Races day in 2013 when he won the Hong Kong Cup aboard Akeed Mofeed, and capped it off by taking out the Hong Kong Mile on the John Size-trained Glorious Days.
Could the Durban Demon have demanded and got more- not just money- during his magnificent thirteen year reign? Definitely. He certainly had the drawing power and marquee value name to change the face of racing. But like another record breaking jockey named Frankie Dettori, he didn’t seize the day- and the opportunities he could have had as a brand. Dettori opened a chain of upmarket Italian restaurants he named “Frankie’s” and which sounded like a chain of pizzerias in the Bronx. Whyte bought a vineyard in Tuscany, pictured below, and for over ten years, some of us are still awaiting a bottle of Vin De Whyte. Trampling those grapes and the fermentation period seem to be an arduous task.
Being the complete horseman with all his experience, his annual pilgrimages to keep learning about the psychology of horses from Monty “The Horse Whisperer” Roberts, pictured below, and his impressive curriculum vitae and roller deck, he could walk straight into being a highly successful trainer in Hong Kong.
Only the most naive would not think that he’s already training many of the horses he’s riding today by offering various advice- add blinkers, the horse needs a tongue tie, try racing it over a distance in Shatin etc. Just ask some of the local trainers how much they depend on, and respect, Whyte’s experience and knowledge.
With family always coming first, Hong Kong has been good to the South African- and this great jockey has been good for Hong Kong racing. In return, he’s played a huge role in making it come of age and should be recognised for this. One day, The Group 1 Douglas Whyte Cup? Why not?
The perfect next chapter to this success story would be to see Douglas Whyte and the HKJC continue their adventure together and take racing in their home even further. When Ben Semmens and I wrote the song “Home”, it was only stood to reason that we dedicate it to Douglas Whyte.