After 10 winners across the first eight months of last season, one could have forgiven Blake Shinn for wondering whether Hong Kong was for him.
A constant flow of victories and big-race rides in his native Australia was replaced by weeks between successes and a constant chorus of questions about whether he would last in one of the world’s toughest jurisdictions.
But while the white noise swirled around him, Shinn was steadfast in his view that he was in Hong Kong to stay and 12 months on his single-mindedness is slowly starting to reap rewards.
Shinn has already surpassed his 15 winners of last campaign with 25 meetings remaining – booting home number 16 at Happy Valley on Wednesday night – and the Australian is now part of the furniture, rather than a topic of conversation for all the wrong reasons.
He’s certainly not the first jockey to land at Sha Tin and struggle early – Nash Rawiller also came armed with Sydney premierships and Golden Slippers but could only manage two winners in his first 70 rides.
As Shinn says himself, “it’s all about winning in Hong Kong”, and owners don’t take kindly to jockeys that don’t deliver when it matters.
But he is quick to point to his 43 second placings last term as proof he wasn’t far from getting things moving at a more acceptable level.
“There’s always pressure because you want to be winning but in terms of handling the pressure, that was no problem – it was just a matter of trying to find that bit extra that I appeared to be missing last season,” said Shinn, whose 28 more seconds than victories was by far the most of any jockey in 2019-20.
“Last season I ran so many seconds and it was just frustrating trying to figure out what the missing piece was.”
While 16 winners through 63 meetings – almost 100 behind premiership leader Joao Moreira – and an impending mid-table finish is far from the heights Shinn reached in his homeland, he’s confident he’s now got far more idea of what that missing piece might be.
“I’m starting to get a handle on what’s required to be successful in Hong Kong,” he said. “It is a real challenge but we are making steady progress.”
Shinn is quick to add a kicker – “obviously you can’t do it without the horses” – but says he’s not relied purely on better rides to increase his strike rate from 3 per cent last campaign to 6 per cent this season.
“This season I don’t appear to have the quality or the quantity of rides that I had last season but I have been able to capitalise on what I have and that probably shows that I’m starting to find my groove,” he said.
“The majority of trainers who gave me rides last season have stuck by me this season. I’m pleased with the people I’m riding for – Caspar Fownes, David Hall, David Hayes, John Size.
“It’s just a matter of keeping your head down, staying in the game and showing you’ve got a willingness to improve and keep working hard and trying to get more acceptance from the people in Hong Kong so they give you a chance.”
Shinn says his inability to ride below 121 pounds is his “biggest problem” and it’s rare that he heads to the races with a swag of rides like those in the top half of the premiership.
He’s yet to ride a double in Hong Kong and is acutely aware he needs to produce a big day – the type that will turn heads among owners – to help him continue to grow.
January’s Classic Mile win aboard Excellent Proposal certainly helped put his name up in lights, but outside that he’s never won a race above Class Three grade.
“Whether I’m going to the races with four rides or six rides – some days I might have two rides – I know I have to go there as ready as I can,” he said.
And while many thought he might take the easy option of heading back to his happy hunting ground in Australia, Shinn has confirmed he will apply for a jockey’s licence next season and continue his quest to establish himself among Hong Kong’s best.
“I’ll keep hanging in there and I’ll keep striving for better results,” he said. “I am really enjoying it here and I’m pretty happy with the way I’m riding. Obviously it’s a challenge but it’s a good challenge.”