By Hans Ebert
Melbourne has The Race That Stops A Nation, and Hong Kong has The International Races That Wakes Up A City. With now Longines as its partner and sponsor, the journey for the Hong Kong International Races has been a caravan of evolution since those early days when it was an idea by a young Director of Racing named Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges and endorsed by the then-Chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the late Alan Li, below.
Whatever seeds were planted to get truly International horse racing off the ground and running, they’ve had even more magical powers than what Jack was given to grow his beanstalk.
Just as music is the soundtrack to our lives, Hong Kong provides the heartbeat to this magnificent feast of racing, where, during the days spent here, discovering those forgotten or unknown gems that make this city rattle and hum is often as important as all the shake, rattle and roll that goes into finding the winners, especially of the four major Group 1 trophy races- the Hong Kong Vase, the Hong Kong Sprint, the Hong Kong Mile and the Hong Kong Cup.
With the Vapours singing “I’m Turning Japanese, I’m Turning Japanese, I really think so” as the theme song, this year was meant to be akin to The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers where the Japanese juggernaut of runners were to steamroll over everything else including, what a couple of racing writers dubbed “Hong Kong’s Dad’s Army” of runners, many getting a bit long in the tooth and some having been patched up after being plagued by one injury after the next.
What might have been forgotten in the search for a punchline is that these are International races where the focus is on attracting the best of the very best. It’s about the quality of the horses- wherever they’re from. This year, they happened to be from Japan with the country operating betting on all four Group 1 races for the first time. The floodgates were ready to explode.
Japan’s super horse Maurice answered many dangling conversations when it was confirmed that for his swan song to horse racing, he would contest the Cup as opposed to the Mile with trainer Noriyuki Hori insisting that Ryan Moore keep the ride. Hori-san. Funny chap who refused to speak to the media. But he can certainly train horses…This set up a fascinating duel between Maurice and last year’s winner of the race A Shin Hikari with the legendary Yutaka Take aboard whose front-running ride a few weeks earlier on Kitasan Black to take out the coveted Japan Cup was a master class in guile, experience and having a stopwatch in his head clicking over the sectionals.
Ryan Moore, the Brazilian Magic Man Moreira, Japan’s Yutaka Take, recent Longines 2016 Hong Kong International Jockeys Championship winner Hugh Bowman from Australia, Christophe Soumillon, Maxime Guyon, Mirco Demuro, the often overlooked Brett Prebble, Japan’s Melbourne Cup winning jockey Yasunari Iwata, Zac Purton and the extraordinary marquee-value super horse talent assembled, pointed to an event akin to the Olympics of racing. And on the subject of Purton, Mike Symons, Chairman of the Melbourne Racing Club, must have suffered a tall poppy syndrome brain freeze to post the tweet below.
Not only is it petty, and parochial, it’s, well, stupid. Would Zac Purton be the world class jockey he is today if he remained in Australia? Symons’ unnecessary rant is Emerald Hotel Bar talk and one doubts will help the cause of some of his club’s main supporters looking to curry favours with the HKJC. One would have thought he was smarter.
There were also the usual intriguing back stories: Karis Teetan being promised the ride on the John Moore galloper Designs On Rome over longtime partner Tommy Berry after the Mauritian Magician’s inspired ride to win on him October’s Shatin Trophy, but then suddenly losing the ride to Joao Moreira after running last in last month’s Longines Jockey Club Cup.
Horse racing can be a very unforgiving sport, especially when big money is involved. All those social media jockey bashers out there taking great glee to cackle out a failure, should, apart from getting a life, think about the mental resolve needed to ride, lose, have to undergo the slings and arrows of outrageous vitriol, and still pick up the pieces and return to fight another day. Have an opinion. Please. But to laugh at the misfortune of others only shows character flaws and deep-rooted insecurities.
We battened down the hatches, meanwhile, when Gary Moore announced after winning the Perth Winterbottom Stakes on Takedown that he would be bringing his hugely improved galloper to contest the Hong Kong Sprint.
Known for his post race theatrics, one wondered what type of show on turf the flamboyant- and that’s being conservative- trainer would turn on for the crowds if his horse won. Or even before the race was run. For Security, it might have been a bit of cause for concern. For Gary Moore, winning the race would have been his greatest comeback. He deserved to win it. But could he? He certainly thought so and declared it to everyone within earshot. One wouldn’t have expected anything less from Gazza.
Meanwhile, the somewhat erratic coverage of Hong Kong racing in the land Down Under continues. Ironically, the biggest stumbling block to this is the HKJC’s supposed co-mingling partner Tabcorp. Biting the hand that feeds you is never a smart business strategy, but Tabcorp seems adamant to prove this wrong.
Instead of providing easy access for Hong Kong racing to reach as wide an audience as possible, there have been various roadblocks to stop this happening. How this plays out and exactly what Tabcorp brings to the co-mingling table in the true spirit of partnership is questionable. Very. One has to wonder if CEO David Attenborough is minding the Tabcorp store, or if that arch nemesis of racing in Victoria with still an axe to grind with the HKJC is, once again, playing the puppet master.
What was never in question was the quality of horse racing at Shatin today starting with the very promising- and expensive Hong Kong purchase- Jing Jing Win expected to win the first race of the day. But the $1.2 favourite ridden by Zac Purton never ever looked happy in the running, nor even before the race, and had to settle for a disappointing third with Craig Williams winning aboard Water Diviner at the extraordinarily luxurious odds of over 20 to 1 for the last start winner. Thank you very much!
The surprise loss of Jing Jing Win must have been a huge initial body blow to favourite backers on a very auspicious time for the future of Hong Kong: the stunning news the day earlier that the city’s Chief Executive and hugely polarising figure CY Leung would not be seeking re-election next year. For most Hong Kong Belongers, it was cause for much talk and greater celebrations. Was this a sign of more surprises to come, this time on the racecourse? The American runner Pure Sensation being a late withdrawal due to lameness didn’t surprise many. Unfortunately, it’s seldom been smooth going for American runners during HKIR.
While two more local races came and went, both very competitive, and served as the appetisers with wins for Maxime Guyon followed by a determined Matty Chadwick winning an incredibly tight finish against Joao Moreira, the first of the main courses was served up- the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase. The racing writers will write about all this with far more knowledge, but for this racing fan, there’s nothing better than watching two of the world’s best riders fight out a finish. And that’s what happened when Ryan Moore and Highland Reel, the $1.4 favourite, did everything possible to win only to be thwarted by the Magic of Joao Moreira on Japan’s 20 to 1 runner Satono Crown. Sometimes, it’s a pity that there has to be a loser. This was one of those times. But what a feast to savour for racing fans.
“Is there another big win left in him?” asked race caller Brett Davis- and what a superb job Brett Davis did throughout the afternoon- before the race and Aerovelocity answered the question by taking out the Group 1 Longines Sprint with old mate Zac Purton aboard.
What a brilliant training effort by Paul O’Sullivan to get this tough eight year old warrior back- part of “Dad’s Army”- and racing after a number of setbacks, let alone to win this race for Hong Kong. In fact, it was a Hong Kong “Dad’s Army” quartet- 1,2,3,4- and a great family moment for Zac and Nicole with their families present. Yes, Jimmy Cassidy was present and pumped! And why not?
The Postman aka Zac Purton delivered again for Hong Kong by this time taking out the Longines Hong Kong Mile on Beauty Only, which racked up the third winner of the day for trainer Tony Cruz. Simply put, the Zac Attack wasn’t to be intimidated and outrode his opponents- and he knew it. As for Hong Kong’s “Dad’s Army”, winning two of the four Group 1 races meant they certainly weren’t shooting blanks. Bang, bang, baby!
As expected, Japan’s Maurice with Ryan Moore aboard took out the Hong Kong Cup- but not expected was how he said Sayonara to horse racing by absolutely destroying a very good field of runners. I swear, he was flying at the end. And what an understated post-race summary by Ryan Moore. No huffing, no puffing. Just another day’s work. What superstars- horse and rider.
As an aside, apart from being named World’s Best Jockey, after receiving his award from Longines at the usual Friday night gala dinner and being asked the same questions over and over again, Ryan Moore showed just what a grounded, secure and humble individual he is. And likeable.
Humility. There are some “big noters” in horse racing who really should look up the meaning of the word instead of lumbering around being legends in their own lunchtime. It’s not a good ‘look’. And their limited abilities are starting to show.
The International races aside, the highlight of the meeting from a local perspective- and certainly from an inquisitive point of view for visitors who have watched the video of his debut last to first win “go viral” was in the last race where the quirky and still very much work-in-progress Pakistan Star made his reappearance with regular rider Matty Chadwick aboard.
Despite the well-known Hong Kong chant of a sustained “Diiiiiiuuuu”, and with racing fans wanting his head after seconds at his last two starts, trainer Tony Cruz stayed loyal to his former stable apprentice. To those who don’t know Cruzy, he’s his own man. He’s seen it all, ridden and won against the best in Europe, trained the mighty Silent Witness, doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is hugely respected by the influential Chinese racing media, and is fiercely loyal, especially to the local jockeys.
As he has said to this writer many times, “I’m a Hong Kong boy, man. I must support the young Hong Kong riders.” He also throws his considerable support behind longtime friends who have ridden so successfully for him in the past like Gerald Mosse and Douglas Whyte, and has often given the careers of those new to Hong Kong some important kickstarts. Just ask Neil Callan.
As for Pakistan Star who enjoys running his own race and still seems confused when having to race between other horses, drawn the very outside barrier was almost a blessing. The problem was whether there would be sufficient speed in the race for him to want- yes, want- to play catch-up.
As Matty Chadwick once explained, “This is a very intelligent horse. He’s also a bit of a kidder. You really need to coax him and say, ‘Come on, buddy, let’s show them who’s boss”. Pakistan Star steaming from last down the outside is great theatre and the crowds love it.
Today, however, was another off day. With the slow pace upfront, Pakistan Star was unable to show that electrifying acceleration we saw in his first two starts. Maybe he was also having one of those off days? Maybe he had seen that amazing win by Maurice and thought, “Good grief, that really is the Beast From The East!” But these are still early days for the young galloper though some might say he’s running out of excuses. Time will tell.
Looking back, it was another hugely successful HKIR week. It’s a week that by now the HKJC should be documenting and entering as a short film at somewhere like the Sundance Film Festival. It can be an indie classic- a fly on the wall look into everything that has happened this past week and what will happen tonight- the people, the racing, the pre and post race stories, the truths, the half-truths, the bollocks, and of course all that has happened with Hong Kong as the backdrop. In an ideal world, Martin Scorsese should direct it. Yes, I know: Dream on…
Over 29,000 in attendance at Happy Valley Racecourse for the 2016 Hong Kong International Jockeys Championship- a record for this annual event emphasised the balance between the appreciation of great horses and racing and the E Factor- Entertainment. It was good to hear the familiar voice of David Taggart at Adrenaline for the first time endorse the venue with a Happy Wednesday, “How good is THIS???!!!”
On Sunday, it was a Group 1 day with over 94,000 in attendance. Again, let the racing writers do what they’re best at and relive what happened on-course and mention all the back stories. It will also be interesting to see what the Chinese racing media focus on, Grasshopper.
Social media, this year was reined in- and in a good way. There wasn’t any inane waffle about eating dim sum for the first time. #awesome. Instead, there were excellent updates, and insights from knowledgeable racing people. If there is one thing that needs more thought, it’s not reading exactly the same information from around fifteen different people. How many ways can you say the same thing? Thankfully, there are those who view things differently.
Of course, there were the usual hangers-on, the tightwads and those transparent opportunists who used their time here to network and look for a gig in Hong Kong. Alas, there’s no more room at the inn. Mr Bubbles somehow managing to move in took care of that. But this is bit player stuff. It’s inconsequential to the greater scheme of things.
What matters is the HKJC producing a world class horse racing event that truly embodied that one-time advertising theme line about Hong Kong being “Asia’s World City”.
Once the visitors have left, it’s all about what local racing fans who support the sport week after week got out of the Longines Hong Kong International Races, and for the HKJC to look at the return on investment beyond the time and money.
It’s this latter intangible that’s the most interesting part of the jigsaw to a marketing person: The sustaining campaign that asks the question, And now what?
Unlike the Melbourne Spring Carnival, it doesn’t mean the HKJC going into hibernation for the next year. There’s the Hong Kong Derby coming up, the QE11 Cup. There’s the evolution of the Happy Wednesday brand. There’s the task and wonderful challenge of keeping the HK$3 billion Conghua training facilities outside of Guangzhou on the right track as it readies the HKJC to lead horse racing into a bold new future that might finally and truly bring the sport to Mainland China without the smoke and mirrors spun by many others. There are always the new and relevant additions for the people of Hong Kong through the Club’s Charities Trust. And there’s already looking ahead to making next year’s HKIR bigger and better.
When the best racing club in the world that’s much more than a racing club, it’s all about pushing that envelope. Constantly. There’s no place for complacency. There’s no time for resting on one’s laurels. The job is always an unfinished symphony. But that’s what makes getting there such a great and rewarding adventure.