Author: Howard Wright
First comes the blip, then the blip turns into a trend, but where does one end and the other start? That’s a question which can only be answered definitively in hindsight, but it’s one that racecourse executives around the world must try to second guess if they are to prevent a trend becoming a downward spiral. The thought occurred after examining one particular aspect of the recent international races held post Dubai World Cup meeting in Hong Kong. When Singapore slipped off the international calendar a few years ago, the ever enterprising Hong Kong Jockey Club nipped in and turned its Chairman’s Sprint Prize, previously a local Group One, into a fully fledged top tier race open to allcomers to replace the KrisFlyer Sprint.
Last year, instead of the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, the Champions Mile and the QEII Cup being split over successive weekends, the three major events were combined on a single programme, so that for the first time outside its December international races Hong Kong staged three Group Ones on the same card. The ambition to attract overseas horses, which accompanied the rearrangement, has been only partially successful. Granted, a row over quarantine issues kept the Australians away last year, but that was smoothed over to a large extent this year, yet the international challenge barely materialised, other than from the Japanese. The element of blip arises because not one runner emerged from Europe, let alone Britain.
The union flag did fly over Sha Tin racecourse, but that was more for technical reasons than reality. The HKJC designated British representation for Eminent in the QEII Cup because his trainer Sir Mark Todd is licensed by the British Horseracing Authority, but the 5yo’s two previous races after changing ownership and trainer had been in Australia. It could hardly be said that Eminent was prepared for Hong Kong in Britain. In fact, if owners, trainer and jockey had been taken into account, Eminent could have flown under one of two banners. Part owner Hubie de Burgh is Irish; the other part owner Sir Peter Vela, trainer Todd and jockey James McDonald are New Zealanders. “Anywhere but Britain,” as De Burgh put it.
The fact that Eminent was racing in Hong Kong at all would have been a surprise to his previous connections, for having finished fourth in the Derby and third in the Irish Champion Stakes as a 3yo, he was sold last summer after a disappointing third season in the belief that he was off to stud in New Zealand. A spell with legendary event rider Todd at his Oxfordshire base resulted in a change of plan, and Eminent went off to race in Australia. A gallant second on his debut was followed by a disastrous outing behind Winx on her farewell performance, when Eminent failed totally to respond to the application of ear muffs. Unencumbered in Hong Kong, he ran another shocker, being plum last on the home turn and eased down almost to a walk in the final couple of furlongs. Eminent’s showing was not what was expected, but at least he turned up, which is more than can be said for any of the meeting’s many other original entries from Britain, or any other European country.
HKJC officials put on a brave face, with chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht- Bresges admitting to the challenge of attracting overseas runners, ‘because the European season has not started’. Nevertheless, someone somewhere in Europe seems to have missed a trick, for the prize money was outstanding, whereas the competition in two of the races was not. In one sense this was an echo of what happened at the Dubai World Cup meeting, where US runners were out in force but the challenge from Europe, and Britain and Ireland in particular, was below that of previous years. A blip or a trend? There was a time when a significant number of horses would go on from Dubai to either Hong Kong or Singapore, or both, but that trend also appears to have been stemmed.
Blue Point did the trip last year, having been withdrawn at the start of the Al Quoz Sprint, but he ran abysmally, finding the early pace of the local Hong Kong sprinters far too hot to handle. Winner of this year’s Al Quoz, he has been given a change of plan and a rest until Royal Ascot. Viddora, a filly trained in Australia and beaten six lengths into fourth place behind Blue Point at Meydan, did go to Hong Kong but had an interrupted preparation in the days leading up to the Chairman’s Sprint Prize and finished eighth of nine behind locally trained Beat The Clock. She set off for England a couple of days later with the intention of tackling Royal Ascot before going to stud. The only other representative of the Dubai World Cup night card was Deirdre, stopping off on her way back to Japan after running fourth to Almond Eye, beaten six lengths, in the Dubai Turf.
Deirdre finished slightly closer to the winner in the QEII Cup than she did at Meydan, beaten just over four lengths into sixth place behind fellow Japanese challenger Win Bright, and earned the equivalent of £48,000 for her efforts. With prize money down to sixth, only one runner in the Champions Mile went home emptyhanded, which again seems to emphasise that an opportunity for a European runner had gone begging. True, they would have had to take on Beauty Generation, currently the highest rated active runner on the IFHA file, but second place was worth £396,000, and that went to a 5yo rated 110. Even with Beauty Generation, who not surprisingly started a hot favourite, going for a Hong Kong record of eight consecutive wins in a season and aiming to become the highest prize money earner among all local runners, the day’s attendance was 7.6% down on last year, and betting turnover fell by almost 5%. It seems that Hong Kong punters prefer good sized fields and the chance for plenty of choice on which to have a decent bet, rather than an outstanding local horse bidding to make history twice over. The HKJC must hope that this too is a blip not a trend.