12/14/2001 1:00AM

Legionnaires ride into Hong Kong sunset

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HONG KONG - They come from Europe, Australia, and Africa to escape weight problems, or because they have run out of opportunities in their native countries. Or, as is true in part in every case, because they cannot resist the allure of the fantastic prize money on offer.

They are the Hong Kong Jockey Club's foreign legion, a troop of riders from every corner of the globe who dominate the jockey standings at Sha Tin and Happy Valley.

On the eve of Sunday's Hong Kong International Races, 3 1/2 months into the 2001-2002 racing season, foreign-born riders occupy the first 11 places in the jockey standings here.

Their number includes five South Africans, three Australians, an Irishman, and a Frenchman. Among them are former South African champion Basil Marcus; Frenchman Eric Legrix, once touted as the man who might fill the shoes of Yves Saint-Martin; and one of Australia's rising young stars, Dwayne Dunn.

Not until you see the name of Simon Yim in 12th position do you find a Hong Kong native.

South African Felix Coetzee is a foreign case in point. Currently second in the standings behind Australian Doug Whyte, Coetzee was selected to represent his native land in Wednesday night's International Jockey Championship even though he rarely rides on the South African circuit these days.

Coetzee felt that he had accomplished all that he could at home, so he switched his tack to Hong Kong five years ago. If Wednesday had been a normal night of racing at Happy Valley, he might have ridden three winners, but there was an even more elite collection of foreign riders present who bumped the regulars off their mounts like the "legionnaires" bump the local Chinese riders throughout the season.

On Tuesday, Coetzee thought that three of his regular mounts had excellent chances of victory. Trouble was, they were all scheduled to run in races designated for the jockey challenge. Worse still, all three had been assigned to international superstars.

Noble Boy, winner of his two previous starts, went to Frankie Dettori, who scored a handy three-length victory at 4-5 in the one-mile handicap. Successful Spirit, sent off as the 2-1 choice, obliged with Olivier Peslier aboard. Indubitably Bliss, the ride of Gary Stevens, was sent off as the 9-5 choice in his heat and was a winner every step of the way save the last.

Coetzee figures he missed out on about $14,000 as a result of his lost night, on which the luck of the draw saw him pick up a single second-place finish aboard Hidden Dragon.

And Coetzee is hardly suffering. Twenty-eight days into the current Hong Kong season, he has earned his owners more than $2 million with 23 winners from 170 rides.

That is the charm of riding in Hong Kong. Purses are second only to Japan, so a man like Coetzee can afford to be generous.

Just as some foreign legionnaires of the Beau Geste era were running away from something, some members of Hong Kong's expatriate riding colony arrived here with weighty problems.

Because all the races run in Hong Kong (with the exception of 20 group races) are handicaps with highweights that rarely fall below 133 pounds, there are plenty of opportunities for jockeys who have difficulty maintaining their weight at 120 pounds or less. That's the story with Legrix and Eric Saint-Martin.

The son of France's greatest rider, Yves Saint-Martin, Eric looked like he was on the brink of a brilliant career at home when he partnered Urban Sea to victory in the 1993 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

But weight began to take its toll and Eric soon had no choice but to seek employment in Hong Kong, where the scale is more forgiving than it is in France, or anywhere else in the world.

The timing of the Hong Kong racing season, September to June, also enables riders to spend the winter here while flat racing comes to a virtual halt in Europe. Gerald Mosse is currently on his second tour of winter duty in Hong Kong, having spent six months here in the autumn and winter of 1991-1992.

But even with more generous weight allowances, jockeys can still suffer from weight problems. Since arriving for his second stint in mid-October, Mosse has twice been removed from the remainder of his rides for the week by order of the stewards after fainting in the weighing room.

Still, the talented Mosse battles on in the long tradition of his legionnaire forebears. With just three wins from 73 mounts, Mosse, a Frenchman far from home, shows earnings of $650,000.

For money like that it's worth going on a diet 8,000 miles from the comforts of home cooking.