When legendary USA jockey Gary Stevens describes his competition for tomorrow night's 16th LONGINES International Jockeys' Championship as an “assembly of the greatest riders in the world” then you know the battle will be intense for this year's King of the Valley title.
Stevens, an American racing icon who has ridden more than 5,000 winners worldwide, was speaking at the Happy Valley LONGINES IJC launch where the dozen stars of the saddle – who will compete for HK$800,000 in prize money – were introduced to a throng of local and international media.
Stevens and countryman Mike Smith, who also has 5,000 plus wins on his resume, stole the show as they spoke of the thrill of riding in Hong Kong.
“It's been a long time since I rode here,” Stevens said, “It was 2001 but it's great to be back to ride against old friends and new friends. The greatest riders in the world are assembled here tomorrow night.”
Smith echoed those thoughts when he said it would be a “huge honour” to win the IJC given the quality of the line-up. “It's great to be here and I can tell you it would mean a whole lot to me to win it,” he said.
Stevens, 50, and Smith, 48, are the two eldest jockeys competing tomorrow night but both were winners at the recent Breeders' Cup meeting. They are still comfortably among the world's elite and should not be underestimated even if Stevens had the launch guests laughing as he used a stool to mimic a Zimmer frame as he was summoned to the stage.
Stevens said his three months riding stint in Hong Kong in 1994-1995 was one of the “key points” in his career. “I learnt so much riding here. I was put in some situations in races that I'd never been put in before because the competition was so intense,” he said.
The man who has won each of the American Triple Crown races three times, summed up the thoughts of most when he said luck would be a key factor tomorrow night. “It's luck of the draw with the horses and the barriers. There's not going to be too many mistakes made out there and it will come down to the best horse and the best trip,” he said.
Douglas Whyte, the King of the Hong Kong riding ranks with 13 straight premierships and three LONGINES IJC titles, sees the contest similarly. “You need some luck and I've been fortunate enough to get some decent barrier draws and we all know that's imperative around Happy Valley.
“Perhaps I haven't drawn the best horses but I'm hopeful. I'm there with a live chance. No jockey has won the IJC more than three times and I'd be pleased to be the first,” Whyte said.
At the other end of the spectrum to the elder statesmen Stevens, Smith and Whyte is 24-year-old Japanese rider Suguru Hamanaka who is not only making his IJC debut he is, in fact, riding outside Japan for the first time.
“To me it is a great honour to be chosen to compete with these top class jockeys on such a wonderful occasion,” said Hamanaka, the leading rider on JRA tracks in 2012.
The overall depth of talent is exceptional among a group who not only boast outstanding career records but great current form.
Dual IJC winner Ryan Moore arrives off a Japan Cup win; Christophe Soumillon fresh from setting a new French record of 227 wins in a season; Richard Hughes has enjoyed a year which has reaped nine Group 1 wins including two British Classics and Australia's Kerrin McEvoy notched four stakes wins at home in November.
Add to that auspicious list, local star Zac Purton who is in “white hot” form and with a 20 win lead in the Hong Kong premiership, threatens to dethrone Whyte. Another local Keith Yeung, champion Hong Kong apprentice in 2009/2010, has maintained his momentum since and knows his way around Happy Valley with a career highlight four wins at the track in November 2009.
Young French gun Maxime Guyon, well known for his Hong Kong success aboard Ambitious Dragon and Italy's Mirco Demuro, five times champion in his homeland and the 2011 Dubai World Cup winner, complete the stellar line-up for the 2013 LONGINES IJC.
The 2013 LONGINES IJC is a four-race competition in which the following points will be given to each jockey according to the placing of his mount, and the ranking of each jockey will be determined by the total number of points earned in the four races:
12 points for 1st; 6 points for 2nd; 4 points for 3rd.
In the case of dead-heats for any of the first three placings, points will be added and then divided by the number of horses involved. The appropriate points will then be awarded to the relevant jockey. The count-back will be to 4th place.
The IJC champion will be the jockey with the highest accumulated points.
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