South African jockey DOUGLAS WHYTE enjoyed a record-breaking career in Hong Kong with 13 consecutive championships and 1,813 winners – he recalls how the victory of London News in the 1997 QEII Cup lit the touchpaper
It’s fair to say the 1997 QEII Cup changed the course of my life. I’d gone home to South Africa after riding in Hong Kong for the first three months of that season but I came back for the QEII. Winning on London News opened up a whole new career for me. The Jockey Club asked me to stay and I’ve never left!
Back then I was a very hungry 25-year-old. Having done a few short stints in Singapore it was time to broaden my career internationally and it couldn’t have been a more fulfilling time.
The QEII has always been one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious races. Its connection with the Queen gives it a special aura and 1997 was unique because the race came just a couple of months before the British handover to China.
Very few South African horses travelled internationally back then and London News had to do it the hard way just to get here. He was on top of his game after winning the Queen’s Plate and the J&B Met but then he went from 40 days of quarantine in Cape Town to a 42-hour journey to Hong Kong via Amsterdam with delays in transit. Fortunately, he was a tough individual and his Sha Tin win showed just what he was made of.
I went back a long way with his trainer Alec Laird and his owner Laurie Jaffee. In fact, Alec was one of the best men at my wedding. I used to ride for him a hell of a lot and once London News did arrive at Sha Tin I did a couple of gallops on him and said to Alec “whatever beats him will win.” That’s how confident I was.
The Godolphin horse Annus Mirabilis was hot favourite with Frankie Dettori aboard. London News was second choice giving 5lb to most of the field and the race worked out perfectly.
Champagne moment across two continents
His biggest asset was to ping the gates to get in a good position and then keep rolling. We had a horse of Ivan Allan’s called Privilege out in front and he was a soldier, the perfect horse to truck me into the race. Frankie on Annus Mirabilis came outside me early in the straight but London News always dug down. He found that little bit extra as Privilege fought back and we won by half a length.
I was using a very distinctive white whip back then. It was traditional that I waved it passing the post when I won on him and I certainly did that day. But that win was much more about South African sport than anything. It seemed every single fan back home was awake early to watch the race with a champagne breakfast and it felt like I had the whole nation behind me.
People even compared it to the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995, which was the ultimate compliment, and it put South African racing on an international pedestal and showed the world we had some really good horses.
A lot of great things came after that for me – Derbys, championships and HKIR wins – but the QEII Cup was the start of it all. It’s hard to explain but even on the day I just felt Hong Kong had to be the place for me.
Without that win it’s possible my life would have taken a different path. I like to be optimistic, so I think I would have still found a way to ride here, but when London News won it made the Jockey Club’s decision and my decision a whole lot easier. That was the fitting key to my new venture and I’ll always cherish it.
Globetrotting News a force to be reckoned with
I was lucky enough to win two more QEII Cups. Oriental Express finished fourth to London News in ’97 and came back with me aboard to win the following year. He had an extraordinary turn-of-foot and could win anything from six to 10 furlongs, while Ambitious Dragon was on a roll after his Derby win in 2011 and my whip was in the air again as he got the better of California Memory.
There’s no question this year’s race will have a very different feel with coronavirus having such an impact globally but the fact that Hong Kong came through the SARS crisis in 2003 has definitely made us more prepared this time.
The government, the people of the city and the Jockey Club are all pulling their weight with multiple precautions in place. Yes, racing is continuing in an unusual way behind closed doors, but the bottom line is that we are still racing and at an incredibly tough time that sends out a hugely important, positive message to the rest of the racing world.
How would London News stack up with today’s stars? It’s hard to say but I really think he would have stood up very well.
He took his show on the road from South Africa to Hong Kong, breaking the track record in the process, and what he did for me can’t be overestimated. You don’t come across many horses like him in a lifetime. When Alec got him on song, he was a force to be reckoned with.
• Reproduced by permission of the Hong Kong Jockey Club