Racing: Not all milk and honey at Happy Valley: Despite the rewards offered by riding in Hong Kong there are burdens to match the mountains of cash at stake - The East has enriched Dean McKeown's lifestyle. Richard Edmondson reports

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The Independent Online
HONG KONG racing is unparalleled in the intensity with which it treats jockeys. The financial rewards are great, the acclaim unmatched, but, more darkly, the pressures are more heightened than in any other racing arena.

Dean McKeown, formerly Britain's most successful northern-based jockey, has been in the colony for just 11 weeks, but he has already been both feted and branded as a failure.

'Every rider seems to be on the rack here except for Michael Kinane,' says McKeown, who is retained rider for the Australian trainer Geoff Lane but has had only one success, which came a fortnight ago at Sha Tin. 'It was a relief to get that winner because it's been tough going. I'm enjoying the life, but it's a bit more difficult to enjoy the job when I'm not doing very well. But I'm still earning money in this funny place so I can't complain.'

This place, which stages its most prestigious racing of the year with the International Cup and Bowl on Sunday, must indeed seem funny for the 33- year-old from Woolwich, South London. His trips by ferry are now not across the oily Thames but through the teeming sound of Hong Kong harbour. As he passes the tall, silver-foiled shapes of the colony's banking and industrial centre, McKeown must contemplate substantial riches of his own.

His home near the border with China is valued at pounds 1.5m, expenses such as the pounds 2,000 a term it costs to send each of his three daughters to the international school are met by owners, and there is never any shortage of those willing to pay for his entertainment. 'You find it difficult to spend your own money here sometimes,' he says.

Hong Kong's pampering is more keenly appreciated by a man who has known other times. 'I remember at Folkestone one day I had to run past a load of sheep two furlongs out and at Southwell, when it was first going, you'd come in from the minus five outside and if there was water from the shower it would be cold,' he says. 'And there might be a sandwich to eat.

'Here they do it a little differently. There's a snooker table in the weighing room and you can have a three-course meal.'

While the horses competing at the colony's courses of Sha Tin and Happy Valley are moderate, the best riders the world can offer are imported to homage. 'It can be quite embarrassing because the jockeys here are on a par with any film star,' McKeown says. 'If I went into a restaurant with Robert Redford and there was one seat left, he'd be left on his feet. Only the other day they asked us where we wanted to sit and then cleared a table for us where people were already eating.

'Their theory is that they have to pay to see a film star, but we can give them a tip and they can get money out of us.'

The prizes are immense, but then so are the prices the unwary must pay. Impropriety, such as that shown by Darren Beadman, the Australian jockey who was banned worldwide for nine months for failing to ride out a horse recently, is stamped on ruthlessly, and there is no escape from scrutiny even on cold mornings.

Training ground shenanigans are limited by surveillance on a par with that suffered by Winston Smith in 1984. 'Every gallop is timed and every gallop is televised,' McKeown said. 'Not just by the television stations but also by professional gamblers, who send their own film crews to the track to observe every horse going round every morning.

'And at the top of the tunnel there are people watching the horses at the end of their gallop, watching how heavily they are blowing. You are under the human eye the whole time you are on a horse's back here.

'It's all because of the gambling. Some of these guys are putting hundreds of thousands of pounds on a horse and they want to go there with all the knowledge they can get before they put the money forward, so they employ big teams of guys to go to the track and observe.'

The figures here owe little to temperance. Out of a population of 5.8m, two million punters are believed to wager consistently, collectively staking over HKdollars 1bn ( pounds 87m) on a single card at times.

And for Tote monopolists there is the pleasant reminder of what the pool can provide in the shape of public works provided by the non-profit-making Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. 'Everywhere you go there'll be a swimming pool, a library or some sort of building donated by the Hong Kong Jockey Club,' McKeown says. 'Our Jockey Club couldn't open a sandwich bar because the difference is that back home the big bookmakers are milking everything.'

But in this land of milk and honey there are also deep trenches, dragons other than the seven peaks of that name that look over the island from Kowloon. McKeown, like many others before him, has found that chasing winners in Hong Kong can be as fruitless as was the recent search for a shark which had been snacking on bathers in the South China Sea.

And when the winners stop in Hong Kong, the queues of backslappers and those willing to buy you a meal shorten quickly. Word on the street from some is that McKeown may not be employed next season, but at least by then he will have built up a nest egg of ostrich proportions.

'If I stay here for two or three years years I might retire when I come back,' he says. 'I might not ride again in England. I've had the best of everything here, the top restaurants, the great racecourses and friendly people.

'I love it, but I wouldn't want to stay here for ever. This place could get on top of you.'

(Photograph omitted)