Inside Track: A Dedicated Professional

On Dec. 17, tributes poured in for South African master horseman Felix Coetzee, who said goodbye to Hong Kong racing after an “experiment” that lasted 16 years, to be reunited with his family in Cape Town.

Heading the moving list of commendations was a personal tribute from Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, who described him as “the most professional jockey I’ve ever worked with or seen.”

“I fear they broke the mold when they made Felix Coetzee because, in the jockey world, he has taken professionalism to a different level,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.

Coetzee came to Hong Kong in 1992, originally as a retained jockey to Brian Kan Ping-chee, a larger-than-life trainer with firm views on just about everything.

“Felix seemed to handle these stressful situations better than anyone else,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “He was able to work with people who were known to be temperamental and emotional, and have a calming influence on them. But for all that outward calmness, he was a jockey who was extremely competitive.”

Coetzee racked up his 643rd Hong Kong winner when Pocket Money won the opening race Dec. 14 on the Cathay Pacific International card. The John Size-trained gelding was formerly a regular mount of Douglas Whyte but became yet another Coetzee success project.

“Felix has the most respect from me that I’ve ever had from a fellow rider, anywhere in the world,” Whyte said. “He is the most professional and incredibly, for all the success he’s achieved both here and in South Africa, he is still very humble and absolutely dedicated.

“I’m also proud to call him a close friend, and we have something that is very unique—we can be the closest of friends off the track but once those gates open, we are deadly enemies. Hong Kong isn’t just losing a jockey, it’s losing the live presence of an entire chapter in its racing history.”

Coetzee’s most famous association in Hong Kong came as the riding half of the “C team,” with the trainer being former six-time champion jockey Tony Cruz.

“I won two championships with Felix as my retained jockey,” Cruz began. “We won two Derbys, a Hong Kong Mile (HK-I) with Lucky Owners, and 17 straight wins with Silent Witness.

“While Felix was riding for me, we broke George Moore’s record for the number of wins in a season, and the all-time single-season prize money record too. It will be very hard to get a person to replace Felix Coetzee.”

Jockey Club executive director of racing, Bill Nader, has been in the job less than two years but his admiration of Coetzee is almost as great as those who’ve known him much longer.

“Felix Coetzee has been a great asset to Hong Kong racing, as a world-class jockey and great ambassador for the sport,” Nader said. “His contribution to Hong Kong racing extends beyond his 643 wins and his association with Silent Witness; it is his dedication, commitment and pursuit of excellence that has made him one of the top jockeys in Hong Kong racing history.

“The one thing about Coetzee that everyone will always remember is his infectious smile after winning a race, which only serves to remind us all that this jockey really loved the thrill of race riding and the thrill of victory, maybe even more at the age of 49 than he had in his younger days.”