ANDREA ATZENI got the boot from Sheikh Obaid last winter but he’s making the most of a fresh start on the other side of the world.
The 32-year-old Italian said ‘ciao’ to a golden career in the UK and made the call to move to Hong Kong on a six-month deal.Atzeni has hit the ground running in Hong Kong[/caption]
And he’s not looked back since his summer switch and it’s not just the balmy weather that has him smiling.
Yet Hong Kong is no easy place to make a name for yourself.
With just two meetings a week and a tiny pool of trainers to work with, it is tough competing as the new kid on the block.
But determined Atzeni has been busy, riding 13 winners at a rate of knots and the locals have had no choice but to sit up and take notice.
“I’m Italian, of course I love the weather,” he laughs as we talk in the build-up to Hong Kong’s huge £12million HKIR meeting at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Atzeni said: “Things are going well, I’m loving it to be honest.
“I’ve been here to ride a couple of times before, but this is different as I’m here full time and the pressure is on I guess.
“When we first came out the humidity and time difference was hard to get used to. I’m used to being on the gallops first thing in the morning in the freezing cold when it’s pitch black.
“Here I’m sweating before I’m even on the horse!
“But, like anything, after a couple of weeks you get used to it.”
Atzeni has moved to Hong Kong with his girlfriend Emma and, after his retainer ended with Obaid, he admits he was desperate for a new start.
The Jockey Club out here have helped Atzeni settle in and he’s not looked back.
He said: “When I came over, I barely knew anyone.
“I didn’t know what to expect heading over here on the plane
“But I didn’t think, look ‘I’m Andrea Atzeni, I’ve ridden over 1,000 winners and 30 Group 1s, blah, blah, blah, you should all be giving me rides.’
“That didn’t come into my mind at all. I came here, worked hard to get my weight down and get to know people and people know me.
“I would ride anything that came up and starting from zero.
“I definitely needed a blank slate. I was a retained rider for ten years, nine of them with Sheikh Obaid and a year with Qatar Racing before that. That’s a long time.
“I lost the job last year so I started as a freelancer.
“I was looking forward to that — it was a new challenge.
“My weight was the best it had been, I’m only 32 and I thought ‘who cares’, I can kick on and do my own thing.
“It started a little bit slow but then I won a Group 1 in France, found a horse like Vandeek and suddenly I was flying.
“It seemed as soon as I announced I would be moving to Hong Kong that things suddenly took off!”
Atzeni admits he would still be riding in Britain if he was retained for a major owner or big stable.
But things had started to quieten down before he decided on a switch to the Far East.
Getting the chop by his long-time boss was the final kick in the wotsits he needed to hop on the plane, even if he wishes he had handled things a bit differently over the years.
Atzeni said: “I don’t have many regrets in my life, I try to look forward.
“But maybe I took my foot off the pedal a bit back in England.
“Everything was going well for me, I was finding winners everywhere and everything was just coming in when it needed to be.
“I thought, ‘this is great, everyone wants to use me’.
“The big owners were using me in the top races and I thought ‘this is easy’.
“When you’re a young jockey and that’s happening, I wasn’t brought up in the sport so it was all new to me.
“The money was flying in, the jobs and good horses. You think it’s never going to end and I half slowed myself down.
“And maybe as I was retained for so long it didn’t really help. You get too comfortable.
“You’re less keen to go out and ride other horses in case you get suspended or injured and perhaps that starts the downward trend a bit.
“So maybe that’s the one thing, if I could go back in time I would give myself a kick up the arse and not take it all for granted a bit.
“But it is what it is and you learn and move forward.
“It doesn’t get to me thought and I don’t have sleepless nights over losing my job and this, that and the other.”
So what does the future hold for Atzeni?
A six-month contract in Hong Kong wouldn’t get past the mortgage advisor back home but Atzeni is open to a longer stint. He said: “I’ll be honest, I don’t know for how long. If you were to say four months ago I would be sitting here now in Hong Kong I wouldn’t have believed you.
“You never know what is around the corner, especially in this sport.
“As long as I’m healthy I would obviously like to be here for a while yet. If I am, that means it’s gone well and I’m getting support and so on.
“I’ve not ruled out going back to Britain, I loved it there. I love the racing in England.
“If I had a good job behind me still I would still be there, it’s as simple as that. But I didn’t so this came along and it was hard to say no to.
“Let’s see what happens, I know lots of people there and would definitely never say never about heading back if it was for the right role or the right reason.
“It all depends on what happens here though.”
Atzeni’s old mucker Frankie Dettori opted for a stint in the Jungle over a trip to Hong Kong in the end.
But the Italians are good pals and Atzeni can’t wait to see what Frankie gets up to back in Hollywood after Christmas.
He said: “I loved watching Frankie this year.
“We’ve become great friends over the years. I’d go on holiday with his family and we grew really close. You look up to him, you can’t help it. Seeing what he is still doing now and at that age is just unbelievable.
“To do what he’s done over the years and keep coming back for more, that’s what makes him so special.
“I don’t know any other jockey in the world who would not ride for three weeks and just come back and do what he does. It’s like he has never been away.
“That’s the difference between him and everyone else.
“He could turn up now in Hong Kong and be the best — or in the States, or back in England.
“He could be off for a month and still do it, and that’s at the age of 50, unbelievable. He’s just class, he’s like a kid on a horse.
“He keeps himself so, so, so fit and no one sees that side of him.
“We’ll be on holiday and he’ll be dragging us out for a run, for a walk and that’s the last thing anyone wants to do!
“People don’t see all that and just see him laughing and joking around on the TV. It’s all effortless for him, when he gets on a horse it’s just so natural.”
With the sun on their backs, both Italians have quickly settled into their new homes. How long Atzeni calls Hong Kong home remains to be seen, but he hopes it’ll be a while yet.
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