That Was A Week To Remember In Hong Kong

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Vincent Ho celebrates aboard Golden Sixty as he wins the Longines Hong Kong Mile on December 10, at Sha Tin Racecourse in Hong Kong, China. Photo By: Alex Evers/HKJC

This has been a long time coming! As I have been constantly reminded since arriving in Hong Kong by friend and enemy alike, I was one of two who arrived here last year for the racing, tested positive for Covid, and spend the entire trip in a hotel room. How they all laughed (and still do), with some suggesting I had been here ever since, but they can say what they like – I’m back baby, and eagerly anticipating another amazing show. 

My preview article is tomorrow’s chip wrapper, and this new article will be all about the day as it unfolds, nothing sanitised or edited, written paragraph on paragraph, warts ‘n’ all. Come raceday I am a ball of adrenaline – this is what I am here for – the entire trip has been and usually is a blast, I am fully aware of how lucky I am, and I am old school – I owe the Hong Kong Jockey Club and those I write for while here the best article my little brain can put together. It really is the least I can do in the circumstances and something I take great pride in, so please, at least skim through to the end if nothing else.

For those unfamiliar with racing in other jurisdictions, it is more of a marathon than a sprint. Racegoers are here for the duration, and with a 10 race card (some of our all-weather meetings are getting close to that number lately), we headed off earlier than I would have liked to set up our individually allocated workstations, reminded ourselves of the important geographical landmarks (toilet, food outlets, Tote windows, and bars), and made ourselves comfortable before the first race at 12.25pm local time.

You will, I am quietly confident, be delighted to know that I won’t be going in-depth on any of the “other “races, outside of the four Group Ones where we have European participation, but I will mention winning jockeys and trainers just in case that turns out to be of any relevance later in the day. Far more importantly I did try a little early retail therapy by splashing out in the souvenir shop on a new tie, and ignoring the wider range of jewellery, plushies, socks and so on that will be flying off the shelves as the afternoon gets going. 

As I like nothing more than to humiliate British racecourses and their immoral pricing structures, I was forced (duty bound) to buy a beer (£4.00 not £7.00), a sizeable bowl of noodles with toppings (£3.00 not £15 for a burger and chips) and a racecard (£1.50 not £6.00) after paying all of a fiver to get in for the best days racing of the year, with more expensive hospitality still available for the high rollers – someone tell our tracks that maybe you could make the sport popular again if racegoers didn’t feel they were being robbed at every corner?

BEFORE the racing started we had performances from one of Hong Kong’s best known “pop stars” on Karen Mok, which cleverly drew the younger crowd in bright and early, pretty much forcing them to see some racing and hopefully fall in love with the sport – vastly different to the post-race concerts we have that see the next generation arrive on scene way after all the racing has stopped. It also made for a party atmosphere (I can’t remember the last time I heard happily screaming teenagers at a racecourse), and anyone who thinks racing cannot be enjoyed other than by backing winners needs to head to Hong Kong in an attempt to get your happiness back.     

Anyway, back to the racing, and although the races one to three (all handicaps) were won by horses ridden by Zac Purton (very easily if odds-on), Karis Teetan (the second winning jolly), and Alexis Badel (French so I am claiming him as European), with all due respect, it’s highly unlikely we ever see the horses in the UK, so that’s enough information for now, though the size of the pools deserves a mention – MILLIONS of pounds in the pots for every combo imaginable – from straight wins to forecasts, quinellas and so on – can you even imagine British racing having similar pools and taking (for example) 17.5% per race before payouts?    

On to the races we really care about, and although I appreciate it is always a big ask for the Europeans, their presence is one of the reasons I am here and until each race is over, I am always hopeful we can walk away triumphant. The Longines Hong Kong Vase starts the famous four, though with West Wind Blows ruled out by the local vets, my eyes were following Aidan O’Brien’s Warm Heart and Andre Fabre’s Junko, admittedly in that order. Well backed and sent off favourite in the UK, my hopes were high that Ryan Moore could start my day with a bang, but the race was less than a minute old before I realised my fate. Taken along at a crawl from the off by Zac Purton on La City Blanche, her stamina was never going to be called into play as I hoped, and despite Ryan sending her for home as they turned into the straight, she could not shake them off before coming home

in third. Zeffiro came out best of the Japanese in second, but it was that man Andre Fabre (and jockey Maxime Guyon) who stole the headlines once again courtesy of Junko. I admit I had ignored the Intello gelding whose last win was on far softer going at Munich (his first Group One), and on breeding who would have guessed this ground would play to his strengths – clearly not me. They don’t call his trainer “God” for no reason and in hindsight, I wish I had joined in the late gamble that saw his odds shrink dramatically just before the off before he pounced late on as he pleased, to win with plenty left in the locker.   

Next up we had the Longines Hong Kong Sprint where I was most interested in John Quinn’s Highfield Princess and Aidan O’Brien’s Aesop’s Fables, though we all knew they had to take a step forward to get the better of the locals, headed by Lucky Sweynesse if the betting was to be believed. Swaying from the body blow of the first race where I felt I missed the winner, I considered a bet on the jolly but at 1.4 or thereabouts I chickened out and went for the obligatory “watching brief” with the temptations of Aesop’s Fables (25/1) and Highfield Princess (17/1) happily ignored. Those who backed the jolly were not without a few hairy moments as Zac Purton got blocked at a crucial stage before being switched to mount his challenge but quite frankly, he was far too good for his rivals and ran away from the field, with Lucky With You trying in vain to chase him down under Andrea Atzeni. As for the Europeans, “disappointing” is the only word that springs to mind, though the connections of Highfield Princess can console themselves with picking up over £55,000 – for finishing sixth.

Interestingly, we had a bit of a breather ahead of the remaining two Group One’s (all this way and its nearly over which trust me, leaves a very empty feeling), with a high-class handicap won on this occasion by C P Brave, ridden by Mickael Barzalona for trainer Ricky Yiu, which is my tenuous European link as I watch the French camera crews dash off for yet another victorious interview, while us Brits and the Irish are sat around twiddling their thumbs.

On to the Longines Hong Kong Mile and what was expected to be the crowning of Golden Sixty as the now eight-year-old looked to take this race for the third time. Although we all knew he did not have the best of the draw coming out of the 14 stall, and he hadn’t been seen since he won here in April, the local punters clearly didn’t care and he was trading odds-on throughout the day, but if you were looking for value the 79/1 about Tribalist for that man Andre Fabre was tempting, even more so than the 70/1 for the first-time blinkered Cairo, though after earlier results you would have to be the eternal optimist to back either – and I’m not. Joining the crowds trackside who had gathered in their thousands to cheer their long-time hero, it was interesting as always to see how the race panned out, and as they turned into the straight with Tribalist leading Cairo, I had the tiniest flicker of hope – but no more than that. Despite a blisteringly fast start the favourite quickly looked for some cover under Vincent Ho, and could be seem travelling well enough from the start, but it was his turn of foot when asked that sets him apart from the others – you simply will not see acceleration like that very often. After he put lengths between himself and the field at the 300 metre pole to settle the race in seconds, he went on to score by “only” a length and a half, though I suspect he may have been idling or tiring a little in front. As for the Europeans, 10th (Cairo) and 14th (Tribalist) is nothing to be ashamed of – but it’s nothing to be proud of either, and our raiders were clearly put in their place.   

By now, any confidence I started with had evaporated in the afternoon sun, but could Aidan O’Briens Luxembourg send me off with a smile – doubtful. Romantic Warrior was the latest jolly for the locals and let’s face it, why wouldn’t they be smiling away with two of the three big races already going their way despite a strong foreign challenge. Luxembourg was pushed along pretty vigorously from the off to get a good position and I felt that left the writing on the wall, but Ryan Moore isn’t considered the best jockey in the World without good reason, and he never gives in. Romantic Warrior hit the front at the two pole, but Aidan O’Brien’s colt would not go away and was closing again at the line to be denied by a short-head. He was my each way bet of the meeting so we did make a profit from second spot, especially if you took the 9/1 at the time of publication, but I am convinced it is the draw that cost him – if he hadn’t needed chasing up so early, there would have been something left in the tank. 

So, how do I conclude something as special as the Hong Kong International races – with great difficulty.  The day has been a blast, shared with my fellow journalists who are great company, at an amazing racecourse, and of course, it’s all about the horses. Even though I bang the drum for International racing and have done for many years, I can still fall into the trap of siding with those we know and not giving enough credit to the locals who have proved, once again, that they are more than a force to reckon with on the World stage. I have seen how a race day should be run (if you disagree, just ask the tens of thousands here who enjoyed every second), how it can make a profit without fleecing the customers, and how people can leave the track having backed winners or losers – but still talking about what they witnessed on the day and looking forward to their next trip to the races – something we can only dream of back home in the UK.

Photos – with thanks to the HKJC.

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