Hong Kong ‘gets’ Silvestre de Sousa. It has for a good while now. The city’s racing fans, its owners, its trainers, all of them hardheaded judges conditioned to appreciate jockeys endowed with strength, savvy, that all-important ‘fighting heart’, and, above all, an uncanny ability to win - they ‘get’ de Sousa.
The Brazilian, for his part, fits into Hong Kong as well as Mohammad Ali’s right fist in a bound and fastened 8oz Everlast. But in his own mind, that was not always so; despite his first two head-turning short stints in 2015/16 and 2016/17 - for a more than respectable 16 wins each time - De Sousa chose not to apply for a contract in the 2017/18 season.
The overriding reason for skipping that winter was the birth of the second of his three children. Instead, he flew in briefly for the 2017 LONGINES International Jockeys’ Championship, but there was a hint of coolness towards Hong Kong at that time, or, at least, certain factors around the racing scene; a sense of mild disgruntlement - like a schoolboy peeved at the master.
“I felt that things weren’t quite working out when I left the second time, so that was a factor in me not coming back the year after, and we didn't want to bring the baby all the way here. But I also like Dubai, it’s a different style of life there and I had a good offer to go there. At that time, I just wasn’t in love with Hong Kong,” De Sousa says.
That is in the past, though, blown away this time last year in a flurry of Sha Tin success.
“Things changed,” he says. “The baby was older and I thought I’d give it another go and last season was good, I just went from strength to strength and I enjoyed it.”
De Sousa was two weeks off the tarmac at Chek Lap Kok airport in November 2018 when he lifted the G2 Jockey Club Cup for the powerful John Moore stable; a couple of weeks later, he was the triumphant star on a glitzy LONGINES IJC night; from there he powered to his biggest and richest Hong Kong victory of all, a make-all, bicep-pumping win aboard Glorious Forever in the HK$28 million G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup.
“For the last few seasons I’ve managed to come here and ride a few winners but last year was the top - I touched gold,” he says.
De Sousa packed his kit and departed the city at the end of March with an impressive 44 wins - good enough for fifth in the season’s premiership - and his share of the HK$70 million stakes money accrued. The months since have delivered highs and lows, a dramatic fall and resultant injury, the loss of his champion’s crown, but also an exciting new partnership forged with King Power Racing, another Group 1 bagged and a future with exciting prospects.
Silvestre de Sousa, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
His immediate possibilities lie in Hong Kong. On Wednesday (4 December) he will defend his LONGINES IJC crown at Happy Valley against 11 world class rivals, among them Hong Kong’s dominant pair of Zac Purton and Joao Moreira, as well as familiar faces from home, the incomparable Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore, his fellow three-time British champions.
“It’s a different kind of experience because you draw the rides you draw and you race against the best jockeys in the world. You need the talent - you need to get on the best horses on the night, but you can’t doubt the other jockeys, they are the best in the world,” he says.
His career tally at Happy Valley, Hong Kong’s historic and high-rise ringed downtown venue, stands at 24 wins.
“I do look forward to it. It’s a night when you need a lot of luck, so you need luck with the draw and the horses you ride. I go around there and I know what I’m doing, I know what speed I’m going and I go out there with plenty of confidence that if the horse is good enough he’ll deliver for me. I believe it’s very important for a jockey to ride full of confidence,” he says.
That confidence was brimful last year when he bustled the Frankie Lor-trained Glorious Forever out of the stalls in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin. The front-runner was never headed in the charge for home as De Sousa thrust his right arm with a fighter’s force, lifted and let drop his urging left, all while maintaining a lip-curled, eyes-set focus on the winning line. There was no salute, no thought of an in-saddle celebration.
“It’s my job to win,” he says matter-of-factly.
“He was in front and he got his way in front, the way he likes to do it. It was a big achievement for myself and for Frankie Lor as well. It was a terrific moment.”
De Sousa will not be aboard Glorious Forever in this Sunday’s (8 December) Cup. “I was waiting for another ride and Frankie has fixed up someone else,” he says, that “someone” being Zac Purton.
In fact, he has only one G1 mount, with rides in the big four not easy for anyone to secure this year.
“I’m not that busy on the day so I hope I can still pick up some rides,” he says. “I’m free in the Cup and free in the Mile, and I don’t have a ride in the Vase either, but I’m riding Regency Legend for Danny Shum in the Sprint.”
Regency Legend was unbeaten in four starts until a disappointing 10th in the Jockey Club Sprint saw Purton defect and open up an opportunity for De Sousa.
“He didn't run his race last time but Zac rode him, so he must think quite a bit of the horse. It’ll be hard to beat the (probable) favourite, Aethero, and Beat The Clock. I think they’re the two we all have to beat to win. I think Beat The Clock could turn the tables on Aethero this time.”
Part of the team
There are times during the Hong Kong season when casual racecourse talk moves to which jockeys might be in line for a full-time contract to ride the circuit. De Sousa’s name will always pop up. So far, he has been happy to make do with short stints during European down-time.
That is unlikely to change anytime soon, not since he sealed a retainer last spring as first jockey to the burgeoning King Power Racing operation, started by the late Thai businessman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and continued under his family’s direction.
“It went brilliant,” De Sousa says. “We’ve got a lovely number of horses, some very well-bred horses, and Alastair Donald is the King Power racing manager and he’s doing a fantastic job for them. We are keen to win races - big races are our target and I’m very focused on big races.”
De Sousa’s career has taken shape in such a way that although he has three British champion jockey titles on his resumé, his Group 1 haul stands currently at 10, a total many lesser riders would be happy with but which is surely a bare reward for his talents.
After making his name in Britain initially on the northern circuit in the late-2000’s, De Sousa has never been en vogue with the big southern-based stables, despite living for some time now just a short hop outside Newmarket, the ‘home’ of British racing. He did enjoy a successful time as retained rider to Godolphin, for whom he won such majors as the G1 Dubai World Cup (2014 African Story) and G1 Champion Stakes (2013 Farhh), but that was all too short-lived.
Being a part of the King Power Racing team, he hopes, will enable him to mesh volume with more quality. The signs so far are good.
“I hadn’t been back in England more than a week or two when I won a Group 3, the Ormonde Stakes, with a lovely horse we have called Morando,” he says.
“We’ve got a lot of three-year-olds coming to four-year-olds and they’re very lightly-raced. We’ve got a big number of horses to go to war with. From being a small team, we’ve now got about 100 horses in training, so we’re just hoping for those horses to come out and deliver on the big days.”
King Power Racing has had 58 wins in 2019, and De Sousa rode 32 of those. His haul for his new retainer included a Royal Ascot win on Cleonte and the G1 British Champions Sprint on Donjuan Triumphant.
“It was a great season,” he says. “We had a great start and had a lot of Group winners. The proper one, the Group 1, only came on the last day of the season for me, on Champions Day. It’s good, you know, that gave me an extra buzz, and it makes everyone excited for next season.”
It was not all plain-sailing though. De Sousa’s momentum stalled when a race fall ended any hope of a fourth champion jockey title.
“I had a bit of a hiccup with injury and was off for a while, which didn't help, but when I got back I was back in great form,” he says.
De Sousa, like every jockey that ever sat on a thoroughbred, plays down the severity of his spill from Alnadir at Chelmsford on that Friday night in August.
“It was a five horse race,” he recalls when pressed. “The lead horse moved off the fence as the one on the outside moved towards the fence, so they got me in a sandwich. I had no time to take him back because I was pushing to go forward, so everything happened so quickly and I didn't have time to react.
“It was a pretty nasty fall but I was very lucky to walk out with just very minor injuries,” he adds.
To hear him talk, one might be forgiven for thinking he left the course with a few bruises and a sprain. In fact, with a no-big-deal shrug, the man who first sat on a horse at age six on the family farm in São Francisco do Maranhão says, “I fractured my lower back; I did the ligament in my knee a little bit, and tore my shoulder ligament as well, so it was multiple injuries. I had a collar bone fracture as well.”
At the time, he was chasing eventual champion Oisin Murphy in the title race but he is unwilling to countenance any notion that his six weeks on the sidelines cost him the championship.
“I set up the year with a great start,” he says. “I went back and I was riding winners almost every day for King Power and other trainers around, but I was never ahead because Oisin rode the whole year round, he never took the time off. I was always running behind him even though I’d got a bit close when the injury came.
“I don't think I would have won though, I wasn’t going for the title, I just wanted to ride as many winners as I could and tried to keep my connections very happy. I just set out to have a good season.”
There’s a hint of ‘been there, done that’ about the jockeys’ championship. At age 38, rising 39, the desire to pull in the major wins is now stronger than ever.
“The title is something that if I’m lined up there with a chance, I might have a go, but I don’t have in the back of my mind to win another title. I want to ride plenty of winners but I want those big winners. When you go out to win the title you have to give up some big races,” he says.
His prospects on that front look bright given King Power’s emergence as a genuine G1 player, and his connection to Hong Kong will always offer the promise of a quality horse in a big race. After all, in this town, De Sousa has only ever really been all the rage.
“It’s great here,” he says. “Hong Kong has been fantastic to me.”