When the SARS outbreak- Severe Acute Respiratory System- brought Hong Kong to a standstill and dark clouds hung over the city, a horse played a role in offering people- not only racing fans- a glimmer of hope every time it ran. That horse was Silent Witness and the year was 2003. He was our cheer leader, mascot and good fung shui symbol rolled into one.
Hong Kong today is being pummelled from all sides- an angry city divided between political parties with their own agendas while those on the periphery watch things unfold with suspicion and derision as dirty tricks come into play with the common enemy being greedy landlords playing their own games, the former colonial rulers who took much before leaving in 1997, while a young generation, not born with silver spoons in their mouths, and unhappy with what they’ve inherited, try to do their best to move the firm goalposts. Add to this, the anxiety over the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) crisis, and the discovery yesterday of a local terrorist bomb plot to cause mayhem during this week’s Legislative Council debate on political reform.
Again, offering “Asia’s world city” and, especially the hundreds of thousands of racing fans, something of a brief respite from a continuous barrage of gloom and doom is a horse- the aptly named Able Friend- a brilliant galloper with an amazing turn of foot that has taken on all comers- and won- and has scared off others from competing against it on home turf.
Horse racing in Hong Kong is not what it is anywhere else in the world. It is not all about the “punt” which often snowballs into creating a one-dimensional, gambling addicted society. That’s something for those desperados who sit around baccarat tables for hours, and even days on end, in casinos in Macau trying to beat the house and become overnight millionaires. But, as we know, the house always wins, and a mug is a mug is a mug.
In Hong Kong, horse racing is a pastime-a passionate one played for big stakes- enjoyed twice a week, and where the leading jockeys and trainers are treated like rock stars. This has much to do with the city’s obsession with showbiz and the fame game. Rock star racing personalities bring out the groupie in many in this city. Joao Moreira, Douglas Whyte, Tony Cruz, Zac Purton, Caspar Fownes are uber rich, successful, famous, have style, drive the most expensive cars, and wear expensive cologne. It’s how they and Hong Kong roll.
Most, like Cruz and Fownes, and even South African-born Dougie Whyte, who’s made this city his home, are also “Made In Hong Kong products”, and Hong Kong loves its local heroes as there have been so few. Let’s face it, only Bruce Lee made it onto the global stage. Actress Nancy Kwan, actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li and film directors John Woo and Wong kar-wai never really did. And now, there’s Able Friend, one of the highest rated horses in the world, who’s the jewel in Hong Kong racing’s crown.
Horse racing is certainly popular- the billion dollar turnover after every meeting is proof of this- and it competes well for that showbiz limelight with all the other leisure activities the city offers. One has to be here to understand how Hong Kong works. If never been here, it could read as pulp fiction.
For example, there’s the wannabe goodfella from Oz who constantly writes to us about his punting successes, his “inside information” and the joys of “driving a Bentley”.
Mate, move away from the barbie and Tony Mokbel/Mick Gatto-speak. Visit Hong Kong, a cosmopolitan city with the most Ferraris in the world per capita, a city where brand-consciousness is top-of-mind and where gaggles of largely Mainland Chinese nouveau riche wolf down thousand dollar meals in five-star hotels accompanied by bottles of vintage Margaux swimming in ice-cubes and Coca-Cola. It’s there money and they’ll do what the hell they want with it.
While in the US, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is a marketing dream being turned into an overnight icon, the much-anticipated appearance of Able Friend at Royal Ascot yesterday in the Queen Anne Stakes had the global racing world talking and pontificating about its chances for weeks.
All the talk was nothing of American Pharoah and Triple Crown proportions. None of it went mainstream by leaping off the hardcore racing pages and onto that bigger arena of mainstream news. But, as a racing story, it’s been a big one, and good for a sport lacking in characters and heroes.
The combination of Able Friend and the mercurial Magic Man- Joao Moreira- has been a double whammy. Add Hong Kong into the mix and it’s become a newsworthy triple decker racing story.
Has this big race featuring some exciting milers captured the psyche of the general Hong Kong public? Hardly. These days, Hong Kong has far greater issues and problems on its plate as a fractured city tries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
From a racing perspective, however, the winner from the start was the decision for Able Friend to travel half-way around the world- his first journey away from Hong Kong- be a stranger in a strange land, and take on home-grown equine talent. This was a brave move by the connections of what has been dubbed “The Beast From The East”- owner Dr Cornel Li and his family, and trainer George Moore and his family.
Like the great “Thrilla From Manila” which brought together “Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Muhammed “The Greatest” Ali, to the experts, the Queen Anne Stakes was tipped to be a two-horse race between Able Friend and the still untapped potential of the exciting Freddy Head-trained French gelding Solow who impressed many earlier this year in Dubai with regular rider Maxime Guyon aboard.
But, said some, winning in Dubai and racing at Ascot are two very different things. It’s the same as winning in Shatin and trying to conquer Royal Ascot.
For the first time since it won its first race in Hong Kong, Able Friend was the underdog with most of the oddsmakers and pundits in the UK having doubts whether the galloper that has only ever won at Shatin Racecourse with its bends would be able to adapt to the Ascot mile- a tough race over an undulating course.
As we all know by now, it was a very different Able Friend that turned up at Ascot yesterday ending being a well-beaten sixth in the eight horse field with the legendary Freddy Head having Solow ready, willing and able to win. It was disappointing after all the build up, and, as expected, the knockers have come out of the woodwork.
Was it the straight track that beat Able Friend? One really doubts it. As Darren Flindell called him, “Big Red” was never travelling well. When Moreira pressed the Go button, there was nothing there. It was beaten fair and square by an extremely exciting horse.
For Joao Moreira and John Moore, it’s back down to earth as they ready themselves for the Happy Valley races tonight. That’s racing and often, the journey is more important than the destination. It builds character.
Maybe the warring political factions in Hong Kong can learn something from Able Friend. Like never knowing until one tries. And if that doesn’t work, try, try and try again until it does.
FROM THE ASCOT TWITTERVERSE
WHEN SIMULCASTS GO MIA
It’s all a bit like Finding Waldo, but finding where to watch the HKJC’s simulcasts are starting to resemble a game of blindman’s bluff with even many at 1 Sports Road in the dark about where to go and what to do other than to “let me ask a colleague” which becomes a very long sea of confusion and bibs and bobs of information.
Back in the day, and not too long ago, JoJo McKinnon was plonked down on a set where she would sit looking like a scared Alice in Lilliput and host these simulcasts with co-hosts Paul Lally or Wally Pyrah, which were broadcast on the English terrestrial channel ATV World, still home to that horse opera featuring The Three Amigos that is Racing To Win.
Whereas the latter plods along in the midnight hour the Day For Night before race day to around twelve people, the simulcasts are now on ATV Asia, the channel no one seems to know even exists. But, it does- hidden away as ATV’s free-to-air Channel 12. But as Channel 12 is a HD- High Definition- channel, it is only available if you have access to a “smart tv”. If not, go scrambling for Channel 668 on NOWTV and de-programme your broadband channel remote control. And what if your building has no NOWTV? Tough strawberries and cream, chaps.
So, when it came to the first day of Royal Ascot, off we went searching for Channels 12 and 668. What happens on these Chinese language channels on other days? Who knows and who cares?
Yes, broadcasting of horse racing in Hong Kong must cater to the predominantly Chinese viewer, especially from a betting point of view- BUT, this is almost always done online by the big syndicates and account holders.
This demographic doesn’t need Channels 12, 668 or Ice Station Zebra. These channels cater mainly to what are fondly known as “racing uncles”- that ageing hardcore punter too set in their ways to change. And just for overkill, also available to them are other Chinese language channels offering the same simulcasts- two on Cable TV, one TVB channel and two channels we never knew existed- UTV and DBC Channel 7- not to mention all the off-course betting centres.
As with the streaming of music and downloading of brand new movies and television programmes, the ‘live’ streaming of races is available online if you know where to go, and, once there, how to find that elusive g-spot.
What about the English-speaking racing fan who still bets, and wishes to watch the races- like those from Royal Ascot- without having to suffer through inane studio chatter in Cantonese from hosts communicating to their man at Ground Zero who’s phoning in on his mobile?
Well, if it’s available, you can switch to NICAM and hear- but not see- too fugly for prime time?- the HKJC English language racing team try and follow the foxtrot of their Chinese counterparts. Either that or just go onto Twitter for updates and say, to hell with this farcical comedy of errors that’s more silly than Monty Python In Search Of The Holy Grail and carries on regardless with, seemingly, no one putting the brakes on a runaway train that has been off the tracks for too long and heading nowhere fast.