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The Fastest Man on Four Legs

Since 2001, Douglas Whyte has been the top jockey in Hong Kong and among the best in the world. Racing for his 10th consecutive championship, he’s feeling the heat.

Author Michael Kaplan Photography Brian Park


Image – Brian Park

RAIN POURS DOWN FROM THE DUSKY HONG KONG SKY. HUMIDITY ENVELOPS THE CITY.

Outside is the last place you’d want to be right now. But the foul conditions do little to dissuade the crowd packed into Happy Valley racecourse, situated in the center of Hong Kong and encircled by high-rises. A turfside food court offers crispy-skinned ducks that hang by their roasted necks. Punters wearing raincoats or thin windbreakers mingle with British-accented bluebloods in a gambling-crazed environment where everyone seems to have a hunch, a system and pockets full of Hong Kong dollars that might as well be on fire.

Holding a fistful of soggy betting tickets, railbirding in the rain, I focus on the race in progress. My eyes go directly to Hong Kong’s favorite jockey, Douglas Whyte. Decked out in orange and green silks, jammed up in the middle of a pack that thunders around the final turn, he leans so far forward on his horse that he seems parallel to the beast’s back. Whyte slaps its rump with a well-worn riding crop and tries to move beyond the scrum. In his distinct style, he hustles his horse up the home stretch. He knows all too well that breaking stride on Happy Valley’s incline will result in losing five lengths or more. It’s hard to negotiate the wet and muddy track on a night when not even windshield wipers on his riding goggles would clear his vision.

He finishes far out of the money, in eighth place, and my chits become worthless.

Current performance aside, the 38-year-old Whyte ranks as Hong Kong’s greatest living rider and one of the best in the world. For nine years running, Whyte has won more races per season than any other jockey on the circuit. He holds the Hong Kong record for most career wins and most wins in a single season. In a horse-crazed town, where Hong Kong Jockey Club—the charitable, nonprofit entity that runs racing—generates 7 percent of the city’s tax revenue, he’s a rock-star athlete with a seven-figure income. Considering that horse racing overshadows all other sporting options here, Whyte is Hong Kong’s Kobe Bryant.

When out for dinner, Whyte (a tough and superfocused competitor) gets thronged for autographs. In Chinese-language gossip columns, he’s name-checked like George Clooney. “I’m a public figure in Hong Kong, and there is no room for error,” he tells me, referring to how he operates on the track and off. “The public wagers on me whether I have a chance of winning or not.” One result is that he has to be careful about what horses he rides. “I don’t want people losing money just because they’re fans of mine.”

That wet night at Happy Valley, Whyte’s killer instinct catches the attention of trackside stewards. During the last race of the evening, he interferes with another jockey as he comes off the rail, and the stewards suspend him from two upcoming meets.

Whyte views the sidelining as a cost of doing business in Hong Kong, where racing is viewed as a gentlemanly sport. Nevertheless, Whyte says that being aggressive “is just part of my nature. I can’t not go for it.”

EARLY THE NEXT MORNING, Hong Kong’s skies have cleared. Turf action unfolds at Sha Tin Racecourse in the New Territories, a bland suburb that seems a universe away from rollicking Hong Kong proper. Sha Tin serves as the Jockey Club’s other major track and the place where riders train each morning. I spot Whyte breaking in a new horse and wave as he trots by, en route to the practice field, but he’s too focused to notice me.

Trainer Caspar Fownes, on whose horse Whyte won the prestigious Hong Kong Derby this year, half-watches the zip-around as he scrolls through text messages on his cell phone. “Dougie is a natural at winning with horses out of bad gates,” says Fownes, referring to the disadvantageous starting positions that all jockeys sometimes have to contend with. “Then, boom, two hundred meters go by and he’s in a great spot. He does his homework and knows which horses will go forward and which lack tactical speed. He recognizes the horses he can weave in front of. Then it’s a matter of doing that in split seconds and, if that doesn’t work, quickly shifting from plan A, to plan B, to plan C.”

Whyte, who has a freckled face, tousled hair and a diminutive but muscular body, materializes on our side of the fence. Now riding a bicycle and in a feisty mood, he and his friend Fownes exchange playful verbal jabs.

“Maybe I can get some support from you and you can give me a ride one of these days,” Whyte jokes, expressing his hope that Fownes will offer him a horse to race on.

“You need to share the love with me a little bit,” Fownes shoots back.

“I won the Derby for you,” says Whyte. “What else do you want?”

They share a laugh before Whyte turns serious, cursing the timing of his suspension—he and upstart jockey Brett Prebble are in a neck-and-neck race to be this season’s winningest jockey in Hong Kong. “I hate the feeling of not being number one,” says Whyte. “[Prebble] is slagging me off to the press, but I don’t go in for that. I prefer to prove myself on the track.”

Then he bikes off to his nearby home, where his wife and kids await him for breakfast.  

SEVERAL HOURS LATER at the Island Shangri-La hotel, Whyte relaxes on a roof deck outside the wood-paneled and chandeliered Horizon Club. It’s a private, elegant spot for guests staying on the Shangri-La’s elite concierge floor. Always welcome, he puffs a Cuban cigar, sips Sauvignon Blanc and pops the occasional walnut. On the street, his driver is idling in his Bentley.

Cleaned up from his morning workout, Whyte wears a custom tailored, flower-powered shirt, skin-tight jeans, snakeskin boots and an assortment of bling. Outshining the rest is his outsize Panerai Luminor Marina wristwatch, a gift from the owner of a horse he rode to victory.

The watch stands among many precious tokens of gratitude Whyte has received in exchange for racking up the wins that provide his bosses with “face,” an Asian catchall for pride, dignity and public image. “Win a race for an owner, and he goes from having ten friends to twenty,” says Whyte, who receives 10 percent of first-place prize money and five percent for second and third, plus additional riding fees. “And then he tells his horse-owning friends that I should ride for them. That’s all part of having face in Hong Kong.”

The son of a South African jockey, Whyte got on his first horse soon after he learned to walk. By his teenage years, he knew he’d spend his life racing. In 1996, after he’d broken South African records and won a couple of key events in Singapore, the Jockey Club offered him a stint in Hong Kong, the world’s most competitive racing stage.

Whyte quickly flourished. Hong Kong is a hothouse environment where the jockey pool is limited to a handpicked 25, the sport’s profile is huge, competition is fierce, and the fans are unstinting with their opinions. “If I ride favorites and lose, the fans let me know how they feel,” he says. “I come out for the next race and they’re booing. It’s a comedown, but they’re reacting to what’s in their pockets. On the upside, they push me to prove them wrong and be successful at the end of the day.”

This year has been a challenging one for Whyte. In his quest to win races, his suspensions have piled up, and at the time of this writing he trails Prebble by four wins. The most recent sidelining doesn’t help his cause to emerge from this season with his nine-year winning streak intact.

But Whyte remains focused on the big picture. He insists that the Hong Kong Derby win was key. “My goal this year was to win the Derby,” he says flatly. “And I did it by riding a horse that everybody tried to talk me out of. I had a choice of riding the number one or number two horse; I chose the number two horse, Super Satin.”

In the Hong Kong system, any jockey can ride any horse in the pool. Sought-after jockeys like Whyte get besieged with offers from owners and trainers. It’s hard enough to make good decisions during the course of the season, but choosing the horse to ride in the Derby is especially stressful. Whyte describes that decision this season as the most difficult of his career.

“I analyzed different races I’d ridden with the two horses; I thought about their forms and how they felt at the moment,” he says. Puffing hard on his cigar, he adds, “I made my final choice based on what the horses were telling me, not what people were telling me.”

AWAY FROM THE TRACK, Whyte revels in the spoils that come with being a successful athlete. He has a beach house on the Thai island of Phuket and maintains a cellar full of wine in his country home in Umbria, Italy. He recently traded in his Maserati for a Mercedes and indulges a love for high-end timepieces, counting Rolexes, Bulgaris, and Cartiers among the highlights of his collection. “Owners have been kind enough to give me watches and wine,” says Whyte. “I received two bottles of the 2000 Mouton when my daughter was born. This year, I’ll be coming out with my own wine—from my farm in Italy— but you won’t be able to buy it. I will give it away to friends.”

Whyte’s lifestyle may be enviable, but he works hard for it. On a Sunday afternoon at Sha Tin, a few days after his Happy Valley washout, he’s again under the gun to win races—and he comes through twice, bringing him closer to Prebble and banking victories in advance of the impending suspension.

As I watch Whyte posing in the winner’s circle, providing his horse’s owner with all the face he can stand, I flash back on a Joe Namath–style guarantee that Whyte made to me: “I may not finish with the most wins this year. And maybe that is what’s supposed to happen. But—and I’ll put this in writing—I’m being made so much tougher and so much hungrier that I will win it again next year.”

Maybe yes, maybe no. But right now, in a city where sports fans root with their wallets, there is no jeering at Sha Tin, and a smiling Douglas Whyte reigns supreme as the biggest hero in Hong Kong’s biggest game.”

MICHAEL KAPLAN hopes one day to become Hong Kong’s Howard Cosell.

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