Written by: Keith McCalmont
Hong Kong should be on every racing fan’s Bucket List.
In December, the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) celebrated its feature event, the Hong Kong International Races (HKIR), in front of a crowd of 94,650 at beautiful Sha Tin Racecourse.
I was fortunate to attend for the third consecutive year as a member of the HKJC’s social media team, organized to help raise the profile of the event in North America where bettors can now take part in commingled pools.
The HKIR features four Group 1 turf races, the Hong Kong Cup, Mile, Sprint and Vase each drawing an international field of competitors, with the 10-race card attracting handle of HK$1.6 billion (about $256 million Cdn).
It’s a staggering amount of punting only put into perspective when you consider the jurisdiction averages $21 million (Cdn) per race in handle, a figure that easily doubles a full day’s turnover on the Queen’s Plate card at Woodbine.
Meanwhile, in North America, concerned participants are frustrated in attempts to deal with multiple governing bodies, medication discrepancies, lowering takeout and the struggle to increase field size.
Hong Kong, however, is celebrating the sport of horse racing in something of a utopia.
The HKJC is the sole operator and overseer of the sport in the vibrant former British colony in southeastern China, a bustling metropolis home to some 7.3 million citizens in a condensed cityscape.
On a Wednesday evening just days before the HKIR, at the stunning city centre course of Happy Valley, a youthful crowd watched as jockey Zac Purton, representing Hong Kong, claimed the Longines International Jockeys Championship (IJC).
The unique Happy Valley facility, which emerges from between the city’s endless buildings and skyscrapers, is nothing short of a coliseum with its participants the well-known gladiators of the day.
There are only 24 licensed trainers in Hong Kong at any one time to manage the 1,250 horses stabled in the country and the jockeys, led by Brazilian superstar Joao Moreira, are on similar hallowed ground over the 88-day season. Gift shops across the city burst with hats and shirts honouring the riders, while ‘plushies’ of the equine stars have become something of a global phenomenon amongst collectors.
This racing utopia, despite no local breeding industry, is thriving and staking further claim to a share of the market as the globalization of the sport brings Hong Kong racing to the forefront.
But how are they doing it?
For one, they boast a website loaded with a plethora of free information including replays of barrier trials (morning workouts), vet reports and copious amounts of data; a highly regulated wagering product that provides comfort to the busy bettors; as well as a dedication to providing the right entertainment to its customer base from the handicapping core to the youth enjoying date night at Happy Valley on Wednesdays.
Yes, a monopoly on wagering is in their favour but the HKJC does not rest on its laurels.
The HKJC is the largest single taxpayer in Hong Kong, last year contributing HK$22.9 billion (about $3.6 billion Cdn) to public revenue and an average of HK$16.3 billion (about $2.6 billion Cdn) a year to the Hong Kong economy or 1.3 per cent of Hong Kong’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In addition, over the most recent season, the HKJC donated some HK$7.6 billion (about $1.2 billion Cdn) to local charities.
It’s not just about the racing in Hong Kong, it’s also very much about community.
HAPPY WEDNESDAYS AT HAPPY VALLEY
The community is out in full swing on Wednesday night at Happy Valley, known to the locals as Happy Wednesday. The popular card has become the night out in Hong Kong for the sought after millennial crowd.
It helps that the facility is segmented by lifestyle rather than age. Members of the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club enjoy priority seating overlooking the finish line with all the white linen table cloth amenities one would expect.
However, there is also appropriate room for the hard-core handicappers who ask only for a comfortable place to plug in their iPads and work.
While the punters punt, and they do, to tune of HK$1.308 billion (about $210 million Cdn) on this night, which is record turnover for an International Jockeys Championship card, it’s incredible to witness a crowd of 29,294 file into the facility and proceed to take in the pomp and circumstance of the night’s festivities from the trackside beer garden.
Beer flows and so does the music as a live band plays, but only between races, to keep the atmosphere lively.
Front and centre to the entertainment is the horse racing. On this night, jockeys from across the world square off in competition.
The aforementioned Purton fended off the challenge of such luminaries as Ryan Moore, Silvestre de Sousa and French champion Pierre-Charles Boudot to take the title. The unique competition is part of the handicapping action and the odds fluctuate throughout the night as riders jockey for position in the standings.
At one point, Purton was rated a 25-1 chance for victory, well behind favourites Moore, Boudot and reigning champion Hugh Bowman of Winx fame.
On this particular evening, I’m treated to a first-hand look inside the inquiry room. Located in a high-tech boardroom on the first level of the course, a table full of officials monitor the race in glorious high-definition.
Chief Stipendiary Steward Kim Kelly oversees the proceedings alongside four other professional stipendiary stewards, two cadet stipendiary stewards and the evening’s Chairman of the panel, which is one of the HKJC’s Board of Stewards, along with a representative of the Club’s Voting Members. The process is serious and an assistant, in court reporter fashion, takes notes as the room goes over the trip of each horse in the contest one by one.
Footage of a concerned Moreira, constantly shoulder checking to his inside, is reviewed time and again. Two more riders, who certainly impeded each other’s chances via either bad decisions or bad racing luck, are found to have left their mounts wanting. Both are called into the room immediately to explain what happened.
With the enormous amount of money pouring through the windows, protecting the bettors, and the integrity of the HKJC, is of the utmost importance.
To that end, Hong Kong racing, like in Britain, Dubai and France are committed to the Category One philosophy of protests/objections. Should a foul or interference occur during a race, the stewards will ask the question of whether or not the best horse won the race.
In North America, stewards generally operate under Category Two, which asks whether or not the party who suffered the interference lost a place, which sometimes results in a winning horse, many times much the best in the contest, being taken down for minor interference with a horse who wasn’t going to win anyway.
It may seem like a small detail but amidst this urban party atmosphere, nearly US $20 million per race is wagered. Ensuring that the right horse wins is paramount.
And the party does continue on Happy Wednesday. Happy Valley boasts a neon personality. It’s fun and young which helps to disarm some of the first-timer intimidation that some newcomers may feel when attending a racetrack for the first time.
And at the end of the card, there’s no need to leave the track. Instead, partygoers file into Adrenaline, a night club overlooking the scenic track. The bar stays open to 1 a.m. on race days and it’s full until closing time.
SHA TIN IS OUT OF THIS WORLD
Sunday’s card at Sha Tin is like no other in the world.
There are four Group One races on the card, including the Hong Kong Vase which will serve as the curtain call for world traveller Highland Reel taking on Breeders’ Cup winner Talismanic.
In the Sprint, locals Mr. Stunning and Peniaphobia take on Breeders’ Cup champ Stormy Liberal. The Mile features Ricoh Woodbine Mile runner-up Lancaster Bomber against Helene Paragon, while the Hong Kong Cup boasts Woodbine’s Grade 1 E.P. Taylor champ Blond Me and Ricoh Woodbine Mile runner Deauville taking on top Hong Kong horse Werther.
For the day, I am seated in Champion Circle four floors above the track. It is, I would imagine, like attending a royal wedding. The food, including a stunning array of lobster and various fresh seafood, is second to none. There are incredible floral centrepieces at each table. Dress code is in full effect.
The little details matter at Sha Tin. In a bettor specific area on the main level, a stylish saddle bag, fitted to hold an iPad, adorns each chair which is attached to a desk similar to an exam room.
On an upper level — and do note that each level is equipped with its own signature scent — a unique dining area is accompanied by the fresh fragrance of lemongrass. Here you’ll find a 1960s Hong Kong diner complete with antique furniture of the era not limited to gorgeous antique booths, but also betting machines and a chandelier made of vintage betting slips.
Outside, in the grandstand, the local crowd has filed in and a buzz of atmosphere that only 94,000 assembled racing fans can generate fills the building. The pre-race day variety show in the Parade Ring, including a performance by Hong Kong star Hins Cheung, is but a side dish to the 10-race card.
For me, the highlight of the day was watching the venerable Highland Reel, Europe’s all-time leading earner, win a second Hong Kong Vase for champion trainer Aidan O’Brien.
Hong Kong’s top-rated horse Mr Stunning took the Hong Kong Sprint and Time Warp was best in the Cup.
“The depth of quality in this year’s races has shown again that Hong Kong is able to attract world-class horses, and in particular it was probably the best Hong Kong Vase we have ever had,” said Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “When we see a champion like Highland Reel coming to Hong Kong for his last race, with his trainer Aidan O’Brien and his record 28 Group 1 wins here in person, it speaks volumes for the meeting’s international status.”
Arguably the best performance of the card came from local rider Derek Leung who stole the Mile on the engine with Beauty Generation. The victory brought the crowd to its feet and many of the local trainers could be seen pumping their first in the air in celebration as one of their own put away a field of international competitors.
“Derek Leung’s win was tremendous – he rode a perfect race,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “We have invested in our Apprentice Jockeys’ School in the last 10 to 15 years and it’s great to see a local Hong Kong talent hold his own in international company – the reaction from the crowd was fantastic.”
As the 10th and final race comes to a close, the 94,000 strong crowd doesn’t budge. Instead, everyone comes outside to the apron or stands tall in front of their chair, smartphones held high in the air.
The racing may be over, the money is won or lost, but the show continues on and as the curtain falls on another successful HKIR meeting, fireworks burst into the air and the music roars.