The Hong Kong Experience – Sha Tin 2016

Like all big race meetings around the world the build up has been interesting, but we now reach race day and ten contests to work on from here at Sha Tin racecourse with the four International Group ones just the highlights of what I am sure will prove to be a fascinating day.

By trying to paint a picture for you, I like to start with a Hong Kong/UK racing comparison and I’m sorry if it rarely – if ever – makes for pretty reading, but facts are facts and cannot be ignored. Entrance came to about £1 ($1.60), beer was buy one, get one free at £4.30 a pint, and food was freely available for less than £5 (in some cases a lot less) and with infinitely more variety than any racecourse I have ever suffered visiting back home in England.

On the down side, as you can imagine, it attracts a healthy (sell out) crowd. However, the track and facilities are so well set out that, with the odd exception, movement is relatively straightforward, though a 16 flight parade ring does make things that little bit easier. But this is yet more proof of just how much they love their racing over here, and not just the betting as some would have you believe.

After a bit of entertainment from the drum group Ban’s Gig Drum and a couple of numbers from local pop icon Leo Ku we got down to the racing proper and the chance for next big thing, Jing Jing Win, to show he is not all hype in the opening six furlong handicap. Local opinion is that this time next year he could be back to contest the International Sprint, so we were all interested to see if he was as good as they are suggesting. Talking statistics, and there was over HK$20,000,000 in all the pools (wins, forecasts, etc.) which makes for impressive reading in any language and fully explains why they have agreed a deal so that we can now bet into their massive pools back in the UK. All that we have to do now is find the winners.

Back to the race and not the best of starts for punters as he was beaten at odds of about 1/3 in to third place by 206/10 chance Water Diviner with no real excuses. We may not have had the sounds of cheering bookmakers, but we did hear plenty of bubbles bursting, including mine, as my short priced accumulator went down in flames after just the one race.

With ten races as mentioned and “just” the four Group Ones later on the card we had another handicap up next, this time over nine furlongs. Once more, the pool figures were astounding and, once again, we had a well-backed – and beaten – favourite. This time General Sherman took the spoils at odds of 9/2 after 15 losses in a row since arriving in Hong Kong, so someone clearly knew a lot more than the whole of the press room here combined.

Ignoring the next race to go for a walk and soak up the atmosphere (as well as a visit to the souvenir shop which had a queue around the block just to get in) I took in the opening ceremony (national anthem, jockey introduction, big-wigs, etc.) and saved myself some money too, as another favourite bit the dust with Winner’s Way scoring by the narrowest margin at odds of a fraction short of 4/1; far from unfancied, but still not the favourite at the end of the day.

Next up we had the first of the big races as the Longines Hong Kong Vase saw Highland Reel send off the odds-on favourite under Ryan Moore to repeat last season’s victory in what looked a significantly weaker renewal. In my view, he looked a reluctant front-runner with none of the expected pace setters getting to the lead early enough and was being niggled along some way out. But he soon slipped his field and looked all over the winner until Satono Crown appeared late under local favourite Joao Moreira to run him down close to home and take the first prize by half a length, with close to seven more lengths back to third.

The sprint was always going to be a tough call, but Lucky Bubbles headed the market for jockey Brett Prebble and was as low as evens five minutes before the off. That was, frankly, ludicrous as punters even more desperate than me lumped on in the hope of a winning favourite at last. Once again, they had to settle for second as our selection Aerovelocity took first prize at the age of eight and at odds of 13/2 or thereabouts; though I can only hope that you took a price with your chosen bookmaker as he was freely available at over double that price earlier in the week.

For reasons even I do not understand (technology is for other people), I had ended up doubling the winner with something I had never heard of in the handicap that splits the Group One races. I then spent the next few minutes fretting about my own stupidity before watching my “selection” lose, and do so quite comfortably too.

Two down and two to go for the International Races, and the Mile came next which, I have to say, looked as hard to call as any of the races on the card. Having said that, local punters are in love with Moreira and backed Able Friend, as though defeat was not an option. It would appear that value is not a necessity to have a bet here, but with ridiculous amounts in the pot (HK$32,000,000 – and that was a few minutes before the off) who cares if you can get a chunk of the winnings. In reality, that was not the case, as Moreira pulled him out for a run and the acceleration we have all seen in the past just was not there, leaving Zac Purton to steer Beauty Only home at odds of 5/1 and make it race number seven on the card without a single winning favourite.

After a cup of coffee (needed – it’s a long old day) we moved on to the Cup and, in my opinion, the race of the day (wise after the event), with A Shin Hikari getting stressed out in the paddock and basically losing his race before he even got as far as the stalls. He did jump out of stall one, as expected, and then tried to make all the running, putting up to eight lengths of daylight between himself and the rest of the field. I confess, I thought he was going to stay there all the way to the line. Sadly (for my betting balance), he folded like a pack of cards once Ryan Moore loomed up on Maurice following a patient ride and faded to finish tenth at the line, and dash all my each way bets in the process. I must not let my personal finances take anything away from the winner who did it in style, quickening up when asked to rapidly put the race to bed. However, the fact that he will now be rushed off to stud takes a little bit of gloss off of it for me, knowing that we will never see him on the track again. Te punters will not care, though, as he became the first winning favourite of the afternoon at odds of 1.7 and good luck to all of those who backed him down to that price.

Personally, I have never really understood why they follow the top races with a couple of handicaps as it always feels like a bit of an anticlimax to me, but everywhere does it – including the UK – so they must all know better than the rest of us. The crowd certainly did not reduce, though I did miss the ninth race thanks to a much-needed trip to powder my nose. However, I did return in time to watch the much hyped Pakistan Star in the lucky last. For those who have not read the stories, he is inclined to start slowly and finish fast, winning his first two races that way. However, he has since come unstuck twice and made it third time unlucky with an out with the washing fifth at odds of 1.6 and ending the day on a low for the majority of punters, including me. I walked away with a less than full wallet after just one winner on a ten race card; but, nevertheless, an experience not to be forgotten.

So how do I wrap up my final 2016 Hong Kong article? What simple words could ever do justice to a spectacle of earth-shattering proportions in the sport we all presumably love? Trying to start with a single word, and “class” is the one that springs to mind. The whole experience has been well-oiled and organised without ever feeling contrived. The racecourse and facilities are second to none (I have been all over the world and they are top drawer), and the races of the very highest quality. Yes, the Europeans left with a bit of a bloody nose (I still cannot believe that Highland Reel lost, but that’s my wallet talking), but that is our own stupid and self-centered fault for failing to send over a stronger team (when you look at the prize money and the way connections are treated, they must be mad). But as the world continues to shrink in racing terms, with co-mingling of betting pools the driving force, perhaps the years spent trying to show the U|K there is racing elsewhere on the planet will finally reap some dividends.

by Sean Trivass. Pictures ©  Hong Kong Jockey Club

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