By Hans Ebert
If the HKJC needed a belated Christmas present, it arrived with a bow, and some bells and whistles at Friday’s New Year’s Day meeting- a turnover of over $1.5 billion, up 2% from the same meeting last year, attendance of 77,000, and a level playing field.
Though the magic of Joao Moreira still rode off with what has become a Monty Pythonesque-type bet- the Jockey Challenge that doesn’t even have the carrots to dangle in front of a one-legged actor auditioning for the role of Tarzan- there wasn’t that absolute domination and demolition derby by one star act, something we have seen for the past few months that has actually had racing fans- local and overseas- describing Hong Kong racing as- quelle horreurs- “boring” and with “no value”.
Instead, seen was more of an ensemble piece as opposed to a one-man show stealing the thunder, spotlight, and limelight along with the lamp post and fire hydrant. There was plenty to go around with winners from Neil Callan, Gerald Mosse, Brett Prebble, Richard Fourie. Vincent Ho, Alex Lai, Howard Cheng, Zac Purton and Gregory Benoist. And though they didn’t ride winners, a great ride from Vincent Cheminaud to snatch second placing on 60 to 1 shot Sweet Bean from Douglas Whyte aboard Enchanting Diamond, and Derek Leung flying home on Lucky Profit to just fail to peg back eventual winner Jolly Spring for trainer David Ferraris- now- retired trainer Andy Leung, basking in the limelight during the post-race celebrations will probably take the credit for the win- should not be left out when handing out credit where credit is due.
It was a great competitive performance by this cast of diverse riding talent as opposed to what has become a sense of déjà vu at every recent race meeting- a one man show by the Brazilian Magic Man that’s made what’s meant to be a level playing field look so lopsided that every self-styled racing guru has been busy being terribly creative trying to find ways to stop the runaway train with various ideas- all of them on the daft side of silliness. No one can, or should be allowed to move the goalposts to stop someone who can’t help winning. And winning and winning and…That’s not cricket, and that’s not racing.
Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful crutch, and one could say that, at least, five of Joao Moreira’s rides on Friday were horrendously under the odds. Though he rode “only a double”, something that would have most other riders whooping it up and doing somersaults across the floor, and, once again, rode off with the Jockey Challenge, he surely deserved the award for Ride Of The Day. This was for snatching a winner by bringing Leading Horse back from the jaws of defeat to overhaul the Zac Purton-ridden Unicorn that looked all over the winner. Joao Moreira has more tricks in his bag than making his whip turn into a magic wand during a race.
As Team Purton knows, the Aussie jockey is almost impossible to get past in a finish. But not this time. Moreira fought tooth and nail to extract everything possible out of his mount.There was none of that flailing of the arms and trying to enforce brute force on a horse like Lash Larue on amphetamines. It was a strong ride, but one with elegance and finesse. There was nothing Neanderthal about it.
On the subject of awards- and why NOT awards for the best of everything after every race day and judged by racing fans to show another side of this much-bandied term called “engagement”?- the Training Effort Of The Day must belong to Tony Cruz for conjuring up a win for Multivictory in the Chinese Challenge Cup.
Known as a front runner, Multivictory was the leader on speed maps of most racing pundits. Cruz, who is prone to the occasional odd moment, decided to rewrite the script. The most telling change was the engagement of Howard Cheng for the ride. From recollection, Cheng had never ridden the horse before, and rarely rides for Cruz. But Hong Kong’s favourite racing son, and a champion jockey in his day, knows all about horses for courses- and jockeys for horses. With age having dulled his speed, and knowing others would want to get out in front like some Charge Of The Light Brigade, Cheng had Multivictory at the back of the field looking a forlorn hope, but then flew down the centre of the track to overhaul race favourite Jolly Jolly. It was a great team effort by trainer and jockey- and the connections to agree to go with the new plan.
At the end of the day, though Moreira and Purton each copped three-day suspensions for careless riding, with the Magic Man taking his with immediate effect to probably rest some slight discomfort to his wrist, there was much to takeaway from the meeting, the first officiated by the HKJC’s new Director of Racing Tony Kelly. It showed that even Joao Moreira can have a day off, which must give everyone hope, especially those wanting more value for their investment, and for fans of the sport, needing more competitive racing to stop boredom setting in.
Of course, the question is whether this was a one-off meeting where the Magic Man exercised considerable restraint, and will be back soon with a vengeance to make up for lost time? Of course, he will. It’s part of his DNA. But the New Year’s Day meeting should have woken up racegoers to the fact that Joao Moreira can be beaten- and the presence in Hong Kong soon of Ryan Moore and Silvestre de Sousa, albeit for short riding stints, will take the quality of racing to another level. How this can be sustained on a long-term basis is the $64,000 Question.
Apart from those who do battle at every meeting to try and unhinge the Joao Show, the ease in which Vincent Cheminaud and Gregory Benoist, below, have quickly settled into Hong Kong racing, and the competitiveness they have added to the riding ranks, offer the HKJC with food for thought.
Though here on short riding stints, encore visits by these two very good riders must be on the cards. And based on the idea of these short-term licenses, what’s possibly needed is a rotating roster of cameo appearances by overseas riding talent- not always marquee value names, but emerging talent like young Mauritian lightweight jockey Nooresh Jugiall – that becomes part of an ongoing programme to bring diversity and competitiveness to Hong Kong racing. It won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either. It can only reinforce Hong Kong racing’s USP of being the home of the United Nations Of Racing. In any business there’s a need to press that Refresh button- and market the new, improved product. Being on Pause and on Silent Running mode goes nowhere.
AND FOR THEIR NEXT TRICK…
What’s next for those at 1 Sports Road is to improve its English broadcast team, and bring it somewhere close to complementing the hundreds of millions paid for new studio facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. Technology is never the idea. This saga has been allowed to go on for long enough with name after name mentioned as either race callers or on-camera talent- Mark Shean, Anthony Manton- someone improving in leaps and bounds and who should have been snapped up post haste- Wayne Harris, Adam McGrath (seriously?), Richard Bell, Cher, Donald Trump, Kanye West, Batman etc etc. Despite all these name droppings, what we have is what we have. And, seriously, folks, it’s not much. It’s not exactly The A Team.
With the very experienced and knowledgeable Mark Richards usually sitting on the sidelines on race days when not travelling around the world purchasing horses for the Club, together with the always excellent and professional Jenny Chapman, being such an obvious Ready For Prime Time player, why audiences have to be subjected to gremlins paid for on-the-job training makes no sense- especially when looking at the future of co-mingling and simulcasts. These can’t happen with the Not Ready For Prime Time Players appearing and heard on television and the other delivery platforms available today. Co-mingling also cannot happen by working with the dullards at Tabcorp, but that’s another story for another day.
What must stop is the blinkered thinking that English-speaking audiences will meekly accept mediocrity- a take it or lump it approach. They won’t. With a new head of Broadcasting from the UK in place, hopefully, sanity will prevail with this experienced new hire allowed to do what he does best by being unshackled and unchained. Like Django.