Author: Howard Wright
The international jockeys’ challenge circus rolled into Mauritius for two days last weekend, and then promptly folded up its tents and moved on to Hong Kong on Wednesday. Different performers, different venues, but the same principle. The concept, which has its variations in many parts of the world, including Ascot for the well established, midsummer team competition the Shergar Cup, sponsored by Dubai Duty Free, is intended to provide relief from the usual run of race meetings and to raise the profile of the sport in areas that might not normally be involved. The Mauritius event, which has been going longer than most, comes at the end of the local season.
Championships for owners, trainers, jockeys and horses were decided the previous weekend, when racing following the regular pattern of being staged just one day a week. The two day challenge, featuring 12 riders, does not impinge on the traditional season. Instead, it complements what has gone before, while giving extra opportunities for local owners and trainers in 15 races over the two days at the island’s sole racecourse, at Champs de Mars in the centre of the capital Port Louis. The Mauritius Turf Club does not have the resources to make huge financial incentives to attract the biggest names in world racing, but it does make the most of what is at hand. Blessed with beautiful weather at this time of year, Mauritius is an attractive holiday destination offering excellent accommodation.
The MTC plugs into the advantages by having the event title sponsored by the national airline Air Mauritius and the premier hotel group Attitude. A host of other sponsors, mainly associated with the tourist industry, boost the race funds. Collaboration with corporate entities spreads the burden for the MTC and brings valuable exposure for the sport beyond the usual emphasis as the No. 1 sport and No. 1 betting medium in Mauritius. Last weekend Maxime Guyon took a short break from attempting to improve his third placing in the French jockeys’ championship to take up the Mauritius challenge.
Three winners on the first day, followed by two valuable placings on the second, meant he clung on to the points based title by a single point from his compatriot Aurelien Lemaitre, who also rode three winners. Nooresh Juglall, from Mauritius but riding in Singapore, was a close third, in a field that also included Aidan O’Brien’s stable jockey Seamie Heffernan, local Champion Jockey Robbie Fradd, who turned 54 this week and won the latest Mauritius title 18 years after achieving a similar feat in Hong Kong, and Manoel Nunes, six times champion in Macau. In terms of reputation, perhaps only Heffernan and Guyon could be mentioned in the same breath as some of the 12 jockeys who took part in the Hong Kong challenge on Wednesday, but all things are relative.
The enthusiasm with which certain winners, notably local Mauritian riders and the popular veteran Fradd, were welcomed as they made their way back through the crowds was equal to that in Hong Kong, where local punters have taken a little time to adapt to the infusion of overseas riders to their regular Wednesday programme at Happy Valley. Hong Kong’s dedicated racing fans are creatures of habit. They need time to study the form, and the arrival of unfamiliar names, even if those names include Silvestre de Sousa, Hugh Bowman, Christophe Lemaire and Javier Castellano, can upset the equilibrium. Hence the points based international challenge is decided over four legs, each with the maximum of 12 runners, leaving five regular races, including the all important final event, on which the most discerning followers can concentrate.
However, just as in Mauritius, there is more to the Hong Kong international jockeys’ championship, which carries a decent prize to the winner, than satisfying local punters. Corporate and hospitality functions are there to be capitalised upon. A top of the range Longines watch and two round trip flights to San Francisco were among prizes to be won on course in competitions that owed much to the emphasis that the Hong Kong Jockey Club places on social media these days. In addition, visitors holding visas for entry to the country are allowed free admission. All of which raised a question: is there a message here for Meydan? And a further possibility: would a jockeys’ challenge event add value to Dubai World Cup week? Only those of a certain age will remember that the original concept of the World Cup event was a competition for some of the world’s best riders.
That soon developed into the one day extravaganza that exists today, with a jockeys’ challenge long consigned to history. The ERA has already sanctioned extra race meetings this season, including at Meydan. Another non-carnival event may, therefore, not be out of the question, especially since owners and trainers would probably jump at the chance. And world class jockeys are already in town, or making their way, for Saturday’s big event. They too would probably appreciate the chance of additional practice and opportunities at a lower key event that could be sold to local corporate and hospitality entities as a fun night out.