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FeatureAndrea Atzeni

'Mentally, you have to be sharper there' - Andrea Atzeni ready to face the challenge of Hong Kong

JA McGrath talks to the Classic-winning jockey on the eve of the new season

Andrea Atzeni portrait York 24.8.23 Pic: Edward Whitaker
Andrea Atzeni is looking forward to tackling a fresh challenge as a 'club jockey' in Hong KongCredit: Edward Whitaker

Andrea Atzeni has learned the hard way what it is like to get on the wrong side of race fans and punters. It occurred about nine years ago when he not only endured a tough time during a short stint in Hong Kong, but also copped plenty of flak when he travelled to Australia for the 2014 Melbourne Cup Carnival.

Atzeni, who is trying fresh pastures after long being part of the British racing scene, looks back on that period with a shrug and a slightly embarrassed smile. “I’m a lot more experienced now, a lot more mature,” he says with the assurance that two British Classic wins among an impressive collection of 30 Group or Grade 1s can bring.

The cheery Sardinian is the highest-profile new face in the jockeys’ ranks as the 2023-24 Hong Kong season kicks off with ten races at Sha Tin on Sunday, a card with only one race attracting the maximum 14 runners, largely due to typhoons playing havoc with training schedules.

Hong Kong and Melbourne might be 4,500 miles apart geographically but in terms of the style of racing and punting culture, they are one and the same. Hong Kong may as well be the eighth state of Australia when it comes to racing. Despite being a British colony until 1997 – and a special administrative region of China since – the influence of Australian officials, as well as jockeys and trainers, and of course horses, has made it that way.

Atzeni had travelled to Australia in 2014 essentially to ride two horses at Flemington for Roger Varian – the rapidly improving Farraaj in the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes and, three days later, the headstrong mare Ambivalent in the Melbourne Cup.

Farraaj sat three horses wide – which the jockey critics pounced on as a cardinal sin in their eyes – before finishing a gutsy third, beaten a short head and three-quarters of a length. Ambivalent took a keen hold, led the big field up the home straight the first time, but then fell in a heap to finish 17th.

Andrea Atzeni winning the 2014 John Smith's Cup on Farraaj
Andrea Atzeni lands the 2014 John Smith's Cup on FarraajCredit: GROSSICK RACING

Farraaj then travelled on to the Far East, where he finished sixth under Atzeni in the Group 1 Hong Kong Cup, won by the John Moore-trained Designs On Rome, bringing to a premature close the jockey’s first stint in an environment in extreme contrast to any he had previously encountered. He had ridden only three winners from 80 rides in Hong Kong, so it was no surprise his mind was more on his upcoming new job with Qatar Racing in Britain.

That very different era marked the start of a steep learning curve for the Italian-born rider, which together with subsequent events have prepared him well for a return. He knows what to expect. “I’m more mature mentally; I’ve been riding all over the world since and I’ve gained a lot more experience,” he points out.

“Racing in Hong Kong is a lot quicker than in Britain. They race a bit tighter [close together in running], and the handicap system is very tight as well. You don’t usually see horses winning by four or five lengths [in races with exposed campaigners].

“I'll have to keep an eye on all horses because I'll be booking my own rides at some stage and you want to pick the right ones.” 

Jockey agents are outlawed in Hong Kong but new arrivals such as Atzeni are given assistance from the Jockey Club for a limited time to help them find their way around.

Crucially, Atzeni is able to ride as low as 114lb (8st 2lb), which should open up plenty of options. In fact, two of his three rides on Sunday carry light weights – Youthful Deal (8st 3lb) for Frankie Lor and Precise Express (8st 8lb) for Ricky Yiu. His remaining ride is the untapped Beauty Crescent, trained by Tony Cruz.

In theory, it must be a little easier second time around for the jockey, so what has he learned that can now be put to good use? For starters, he is unlikely to be sitting three-wide, particularly on the city course on a Wednesday night.

“Obviously, Happy Valley is a very tight track. And position is the key a lot of the time. I know I've got to be sharp out of the gates to get a good position. Also, the rules are pretty strict. You can’t cut across [other horses]. You have to be very clean, and that’s the way it should be . . . everywhere.

“I think, mentally, you have to be sharper in Hong Kong. In Britain it’s all about getting into a rhythm. You’ve got plenty of time. But this is similar to Australia,” he adds, referencing the importance of the barrier draw and being well positioned in running.

He is a 'club jockey', a gun for hire, available to all owners and trainers, on contract to the Jockey Club, which in turn guarantees a certain income for the length of the rider’s stay. Initially, Atzeni is on a six-month contract. “But I hope it is going to be longer. I’m going to ride for as many people as I can . . . for anybody who wants me. I'll be there for trackwork in the mornings, barrier trials, everything. It would be good to get the ball rolling straight away.”

Atzeni re-enters a jockeys’ room which has a hard core of 22 riders, headed by six-time champion Zac Purton, as well as four-time Sydney champion Hugh Bowman, triple South African champion Lyle Hewitson, together with local star Vincent Ho, who is still recovering from injuries sustained in a nasty race fall in Japan in July. Ho is aiming to be back riding on September 17.

Simple Verse (maroon) and Bondi Beach (purple) collide in the 2015 St Leger
Simple Verse (maroon) and Andrea Atzeni land a controversial success in the 2015 St Leger, a race in which they were disqualified but reinstated on appealCredit: Julian Herbert

Horses have always travelled well for Atzeni, who has the hands to both relax and inspire his mounts at the appropriate time. At 32, he comes to Hong Kong at what is considered the ‘right time’ in his career. He has ridden more than 1,200 winners and tasted Group 1 success in seven countries, including St Leger wins at Doncaster aboard Kingston Hill and Simple Verse. He joins Harry Bentley as one of the few former British-based jockeys in recent times willing to commit for an entire season.

Atzeni also arrives in brilliant form, having won the Group 1 Prix Morny at Deauville last month for Simon and Ed Crisford, as well as the Stewards' Cup at Goodwood and, perhaps more importantly, the Listed Hopeful Stakes at Newmarket for prominent Hong Kong owner Marc Chan. He has enjoyed a stellar few weeks in the saddle.

Atzeni says he is ready for the change and ready to refocus. “I'll miss Britain, my second home. I've been riding there for a long time and I’m very lucky to have done well, but Hong Kong came along and they made me and my partner very welcome. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has been so helpful and welcoming.”

Hong Kong is a tough place for a jockey. A good start, with a couple of winners early in the season, is essential for continued success. Talent alone will not win over the hard-marking critics who are waiting at every turn. But consistent performance in all grades, no matter whether Class 1 or Class 5, will go a long way to laying the foundations and that a situation of which the likeable Italian is well aware.

New faces in the Hong Kong ranks

Keagan De Melo, the reigning South African champion, joins popular Andrea Atzeni as one of the new faces in Hong Kong’s jockey ranks for the new season.

De Melo, 30, has ridden more than 1,200 winners, including landing the South African Derby, and is considered one of the rising stars in his native country. He follows a long and impressive line of South Africans, headed by Douglas Whyte, Basil Marcus and Robbie Fradd.

Atzeni arrives for his second stint in Hong Kong - nine years after his first - with hopes he can extend his contract beyond the initial six months. He is confident he is better equipped to handle the demands of the local scene. De Melo and Atzeni each have three rides at Sha Tin on Sunday.

The list of licensed jockeys was in need of a refresh following the departure of Joao Moreira, Silvestre de Sousa, Ruan Maia and Vagner Borges in a turbulent last season on and off the track. There are expected to be additions mid-season, most likely from the northern hemisphere, on short-term contracts.

The trainers’ ranks also needed restocking following the retirement of Richard Gibson and, surprisingly to some, South African stalwart Tony Millard, who held a Hong Kong licence for 24 years and sent out more than 700 winners.

Peter Ho was forced to relinquish his licence after again failing to meet Jockey Club requirements for the number of winners trained in a season. 

Stepping forward to fill the gap are well-regarded Sydney trainer Mark Newnham, who has trained more than 400 winners and won four Group 1s in Australia after having worked for Bart Cummings and Gai Waterhouse.  Newnham, 55, will start with 35 horses.

The other training appointment is Cody Mo Wai-kit, former deputy to Tony Cruz. He will commence training with a stable of 36 horses.

Read these next:

Dream send-off for Andrea Atzeni as Lezoo completes remarkable treble for Ralph Beckett and Marc Chan  

'It's nice to leave on a high' - Andrea Atzeni signing off in style as Hong Kong-bound jockey lands Morny with Vandeek  

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Published on 8 September 2023inHong Kong

Last updated 08:30, 8 September 2023