International jockey challenges: Do they serve any useful purpose?

Teams for the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot 9 Aug 2014. Photo: Steven Cargill / Racingfotos.com

Which is more important - the horse or the jockey? No contest surely, one reason why jockeys' competitions have divided the racing cognoscenti. Paul Haigh looks at the pros and cons.

The case against isn't hard to make.

Jockeys’ competitions put the egg on top of the chicken. They lay the emphasis on the adjunct rather than the essential. They disrupt the business of handicapping (in the American sense of the word) or form study as it's known elsewhere. They prove little or nothing about the relative merits of the jockeys themselves, not least because some jockeys may be familiar with the track, others will be seeing it for the first time. With the mounts allocated by ballot, the contest is all too often decided by who gets the best conveyances: a lucky dip that reduces the whole thing to a farce. Racing is about the horses. Jockeys' competitions just contradict the essence of the sport.

The case in favour is a little more complicated. As with most innovations, it has something to do with money, something to do with entertainment, something to do with variation just for variation's sake.

Horses can't talk. That's been the main problem for the sport's promoters ever since competition from lesser amusements made people suspect some sort of promotion might be necessary. Jockeys can. Well, some of them can anyway, and a select few can do so very fluently indeed. So a contest that puts the weight for once - not always, of course - on the men and women involved, rather than on the horses, has huge advantages in terms of TV interviews and general marketing.

The earliest jockeys' meetings may have been those organised in Britain by former riders Joe Mercer and Jimmy Lindley in the late '70s and early '80s. They attracted a certain amount of hostility from traditionalists and a certain indifference from the public, but they did serve the purpose of highlighting one important truth: that many overseas riders, particularly American-based, were much better judges of pace than any of those British-based - with the possible exception of Lester Piggott.

Bill Shoemaker, in particular, showed up his local rivals with "waiting in front" tactics that had long been Lester's sole domain. These competitions weren't simply stunts, although of course from the bettors' point of view they felt and looked a lot like them. They gave us information about the relative strengths and weaknesses of jockeys from around the world.

International jockeys' championships, despite their flaws, also served to give pre-publicity to grander events to come. When Dubai's first racecourse, Nad Al Sheba, opened in 1993, the International Racing Bureau (IRB) was asked to come up with a way of drawing attention to the improbable existence of a superbly appointed course in the middle of reclaimed desert where racing was to take place without betting or any substantially populated hinterland.

"We helped arrange the first ones at Nad Al Sheba," recalled the IRB's Adrian Beaumont. “The reasoning behind this was that we wanted Dubai to get international exposure, but because at that time the quarantine protocols had not been set up for international racing, we had to look for another way of doing it and we felt the best was to set up an international jockeys' meeting that would attract global attention.

"The jockeys' competitions did achieve that aim. They encouraged the world's media to attend Nad Al Sheba by giving them a focal point for their visits, and they ran successfully for the three years before the launch of Dubai World Cup Night in 1996. They also had the advantage of giving the world's leading jockeys experience of Nad Al Sheba, and that served two purposes: it meant they could go back and report to their horsemen about the quality of the facilities, and it gave them early experience of the track."

The innovation has been copied or actually preceded by jockeys championships in other countries wanting to promote an international event rather than an entirely new racing venue.

In Japan, the modestly titled "World Super Jockeys Series" had been established in 1987 with "the aim of showing our customers excellent performances by the world's best jockeys and also to raise the standard of Japanese jockeys' skills by offering them opportunities to compete against these top-notchers," said a current JRA official, who has to be anonymous. "There’s no doubt that [it] did definitely have a beneficial effect on attendance."

In Hong Kong, top-class jockeys are even more celebrated - even idolised - than they are in Japan. (Witness a Hong Kong racing fan and HKJC employee, who shall otherwise be nameless, actually changed his forename to 'Soumillon' for all purposes, including legal ones). It is also that extreme rarity: A place where racing occupies even more space than football on the back pages of the local press.

There, the (now Longines-sponsored) International Jockeys' Challenge, held annually at Happy Valley on the Wednesday before the climactic Longines Hong Kong International Races, has long been popular with fans. It can boast larger attendances than for normal Wednesday meetings - although how much this owes to the publicity this meeting gets compared with ordinary Happy Valley Wednesdays is hard to quantify; but the fact that the 2014 International Jockeys' Challenge attracted a crowd of nearly 20,000, compared with the previous Wednesday's 12,500, is the most recent indication of its popularity.

In Britain, much to the dismay of purists, the concept of international jockeys' competitions took a new step in the 1990s, with the arrival at Ascot of the revamped Shergar Cup. Those who hoped to see this innovation die a peaceful death thanks to customer indifference have been gravely disappointed, though, and the late-summer event has now become a regular and, for some, much anticipated part of the Ascot racing calendar.

Adrian Beaumont, because of the part he and the IRB play in the meeting's organisation, may not be an entirely objective observer of its enduring success, but it's hard to argue with his factual assessment of its progress.

"When the Shergar Cup moved from Goodwood to Ascot, it was billed as a competition between leading owners [Britain vs. rest of the world]," he said. "We soon realised this was a non-starter, but the one thing that had drawn favourable comment to the Goodwood competition was the inclusion of international jockeys. We therefore decided to turn it into a jockeys' event. But, given that there were now quite a lot of these around the world, we wanted to do something to make it stand out. So we went for a team format - three jockeys from each of Britain, Ireland, and Europe and three representing the rest of the world. This launched in 2000.

"That format has now changed, with the British and Irish teams merging into one and the addition of a women's team building to some extent on the popularity of Hayley Turner. It's now one of the most popular meetings at Ascot, and combined with its post-racing concert usually gets crowds in excess of 30,000."

Beaumont said the Shergar Cup has become a feel-good day. "There are jockeys' autograph signing sessions, sponsors' giveaways, cheerleaders, innovative opening and closing ceremonies, and the post-meeting concert. There are very detailed racecards and announcements all through the day that are specifically aimed at people who may be coming racing for the first time.

"Most importantly, the meeting has showcased some of the world's leading riders, often for the first time in Europe. It's introduced to the British racing public jockeys like João Moreira, Weichong Marwing, Luke Nolen, David Flores, Douglas Whyte, Shane Dye, and Emma-Jayne Wilson."

Unsurprisingly Ascot's Head of Communications and International Racing Nick Smith is just as avid a supporter: "There’s no doubt that the appeal of the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup is that it is something different, both in terms of what it offers racegoers here and what it offers on the increasing, and arguably somewhat saturated landscape of jockeys' competitions around the world."

He added: "In the team format, we have something that really works: something the public and the TV audience can get behind. It is the only day on the U.K. calendar apart from Royal Ascot where all races are covered live on the [national] Channel 4 network."

Some of the most critical as well as some of the the most appreciative racing purists are located in Hong Kong. So, while once again issuing the proviso that organisers are hardly likely to be opponents, it's relevant to offer the opinion of the HKJC’s (American) Executive Director of Racing Bill Nader:

"We have all of the advantages in the Longines Hong Kong International Jockey Championship," said Nader. "The setting is electric, under the bright lights of Happy Valley Racecourse, which has to be considered the most exciting place in the world for a night at the races. The prize money for the four races is very good, and we put up an additional HK$800,000 that's shared by the top three jockeys in the competition. The crowd really gets into it and they are right on top of the action, which is one of the great features of Happy Valley. Recruiting top jockeys from around the world is an easy sell and we are able to attract the best from across the globe."

And, of course, there are few complaints from the riders themselves. "Jockey challenges are great," said the former Hong Kong champion, Australia's Zac Purton. "They give us a wonderful opportunity to put ourselves up against the best from around the world and to get a feel for their racing styles. Of course they're something of a lucky dip and it's very easy to get stuck on uncompetitive rides - which is always disappointing. I think they need to somehow make the rides more even, which would then offer the jockeys a chance to showcase their real talent. But, apart from that, no complaints."

So jockey competitions attract crowds (including first-time racegoers), draw media attention, and don't damage turnover (Happy Valley's win pool averaged HK$140 million per race both on International Jockeys' Challenge Wednesday and the Wednesday before it). TV likes them and marketing loves them.

In Japan, the effect has been a little diluted in recent years, however. The Japanese spokesman said: "The World Super Series is still a popular event for our customers, but its effect has been reduced somewhat compared with the early days. Before, we only used to see the world-class jockeys during the winter when they came over during their off season. Now we see them over here on regular visits and on contracts. Now too, words like 'global' or 'international' have maybe become a bit less special for us."

Maybe that reflects the new confidence of Japanese racing more than any public hostility to jockeys' competitions.

America, meanwhile, seems to feel it can manage quite happily without them, although occasionally some tracks stage "legends" races, and in May last year Pimlico staged a Hall of Fame Jockey Challenge, which featured Gary Stevens, Russell Baze, Mike Smith, Kent Desormeaux, Edgar Prado, John Velazquez, and Calvin Borel. Interestingly, however, it has not been repeated in 2015.

So we may never be headed for a situation in which every track everywhere thinks they must have one on a regular basis. But, for the time being at least, the opponents just have accept that they're not going away.

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