By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Malaysian jockey Wong Chin Chuen took a chance by opting to be with his wife and newborn son in Johor Bahru during the COVID-19 lockdown, but for a while, he thought he might have pulled the wrong rein.
At the time of leaving Singapore, the pandemic was just starting to wreak havoc. The borders were not closed yet, and the fear of being cut off did linger, but it was not so real just yet.
Wong also needed to find solace with his young family after hitting a poor run in the Stewards’ room, but when the Causeway was eventually shut down, he knew he would be without a job for an even longer time.
Fortunately, with the recent easing of entry restrictions between the two neighbouring countries, he could finally return to Singapore on August 3, and is now hoping to return to race-riding in late August after serving his two-week quarantine.
The 27-year old jockey, whose last ride in Singapore came on Burkaan (ran last) for trainer Donna Logan on March 7, and his beautician wife Charlene welcomed their first-born Jayden in January this year. His married life was blessed, but not so his stop-start riding career at Kranji this season.
Out of 23 race meetings held till the last meeting on April 3 before Kranji went into a three-month lockdown, the former two-time Singapore champion apprentice jockey copped four suspensions for careless riding, which meant he sat out 13 meetings (including one suspension on Supermax in December where he had to miss out on the next three meetings, of which two were in January this year), and the latest one came aboard his ride on Pisca Pisca on March 7, when he was suspended for four racedays till March 27.
“After I was suspended, I still rode trackwork till March 17. I then went home that day,” said Wong.
“My son was only about two months old then, so I thought I’d go home to be with my wife and son, but Malaysia announced the lockdown a day later.”
He was stuck in his home in Taman Molek in JB. Other stranded Malaysian riders there were Benny Woodworth, Mohd Zaki and apprentice jockey Iskandar Rosman.
Bonding with the family for 20 weeks was priceless to the new dad, but the freelance jockey, who outrode his claim last July, knew raising a family is not cheap, and his wife could not shoulder the burden alone forever.
“Yes, I had a lot of time with my wife and kid, but it’s worrying as I lost my source of income,” said Wong.
“During that time, I played badminton with my friends and went to the gym to work out and keep my fitness.
“I tried selling things online, but it wasn’t my thing. I started riding since I was 17, riding is my passion, and I wouldn’t know what to do if I quit.
“I’m still young, so it’s not hard to learn things from scratch, but even if you’re thinking about starting a business, you would need to have the capital.
“I thought about a lot of things in those five months, even about my retirement plans in the future. But right now, racing is still my passion and hobby.
“I wanted so much to be in the races myself when I watch the videos of other jockeys race!”
When Singapore racing resumed on July 11, Wong attempted to apply for the reinstatement of his work permit. Though he was rejected a few times, the green light finally came through last Wednesday.
He made his way across the Causeway on Monday at noon and arrived at Hotel Park Avenue at Rochester where he has begun his 14 days of Stay-Home Notice (SHN) quarantine. Meanwhile, a return to trackwork on August 19 should be on the cards once he passes the mandatory COVID-19 test.
“When I heard the news Singapore races were back, I applied to come back too, but I was rejected three or four times,” said Wong.
“First, it was Benny (Woodworth) who got the approval (thanks to his Singapore Permanent Resident status) to resume work (in early July), then Iskandar, too.
“I miss my wife and son, but I have to work. My wife also went back to work in May, so we hired a nanny to look after my son. Now, I would video-call them everyday.
“I will have to stay till the ninth or tenth day before doing the swab test, and once I am tested negative, I can return to work.
“I will probably start work on the week when the Merlion Trophy (on August 23) is run, and I should be riding trackwork for (Tan) Kah Soon for a start.
“But I should wait till end of August before racing again, because my fitness level isn’t that good yet. So it would be unfair to the trainers and owners if I ride their horses.
“It’s boring to stay in the hotel all day now, so I spend an hour a day exercising, doing simple workouts like push-ups and sit-ups to train myself.
“I’m not worried about my weight, it’s more of my fitness level as the amount of fitness you get through trackwork and riding in races is different.”
Wong bagged 30 wins last season, but has in contrast ridden only two winners (Plucky Lad on January 17 and Lim’s Zoom on February 28) thus far this year. With the reduction in race meetings and a lack of senior jockeys in the riding ranks now, Wong would not mind spreading his wings further as he sets new targets for himself.
“It would be awesome if I can get 20 winners this year,” he said.
Zaki also set foot back in Singapore on Monday, and is currently serving his two weeks of SHN at Furama RiverFront Hotel.