Photo: Matthew Scott
HRN contributor Matthew Scott was able to attend this year's Hong Kong Cup day of racing at Sha Tin. Here is his report on the incredible experience.
Before I jump into the awesome experience of Hong Kong Cup day, I wanted to attempt to put the city of Hong Kong, or as I call it, The Kong, into perspective.
- Hong Kong Geographical Area: 1,104 km2 (1/3 the size of Rhode Island)
- Hong Kong Population: 7 million (2% of the US population)
- 4th Highest population density of any country in the world
- 2007 horse racing season betting turnover (handle): $80 Billion HKD ($10.2 Billion USD)
- 2011 US racing betting turnover: $9.9 Billion USD (through Nov)
- # of Hong Kong Racing Days per year: 79
- Highest amount of Rolls Royce’s per capita of any city in the world
The Kong has long established itself as the hub of finance in Asia. This attracts some of the wealthiest people in the world with 8.8% of the households being a millionaire. And where there is wealth, we find the sport of kings. With the booming economy (and horse racing banned**) in neighboring China, the Kong is begging for the tax revenue from the rapidly growing local economy. In fact, horse racing is the largest single source of tax revenue for Hong Kong, representing nearly 8%. Along with the neighboring country of Macau, the small “city-states” of Southeast Asia bring in more gambling revenue then Las Vegas and US horse racing combined.
Ok ok, enough of the fun facts, lets get to the fun of December 11th, 2011. There are 2 tracks in Hong Kong, the historical Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island, and Sha Tin in the New Territories (the less dense “suburbs”). Happy Valley is much smaller, with banked turns and surrounded by skyscrapers. Sha-Tin, however, is much larger, has capacity for 60,000+ fans, and stables the 1500+ horses in Hong Kong. Racing only takes place twice a week on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons during the racing season from September to June.
It seems as if US racing fans don’t really pass a second glance to a successful horse out of Hong Kong. Most HK based horses are bred out of Australia and New Zealand so the name recognition isn’t there, but other than that I can’t really find a real reason why. This weekend is designed to change that. 4 international Group 1 races totaling $68 million HKD ($8.77 million USD) in prize money attracts some of the top horses from Europe, Japan, Australia, and once in a blue moon, the US. Typically 1 month after the Breeder’s Cup, many of the top rated horses in the US are not trained to peak after North America’s premier event, or travel to the distant far East. No Yankees made the trip this year.
The 4 races run on this day are the Hong Kong Sprint (6 furlongs), Hong Kong Mile, Hong Kong Cup (10 furlongs), and the Hong Kong Vase (12 furlongs). This year the races have lured such names as Silver Pond (FRA), Byword (GB), Cityscape (GB), Rocket Man (SIN), and the current world #2 top rated horse, Cirrus des Aigles (FRA).
The horse racing experience in the Kong is very different than anything I have experienced in the US. It all starts with just getting to the track. For me, being an American with no ability to speak a single word in Cantonese (Chinese dialect in the region), it makes for an adventurous task to navigate to Sha Tin. I generally hop in a cab and do a combination of charades moves depicting riding a horse, while making horse noises to communicate what I am looking for. The driver typically responds with laughter, or in perfect English, “Ok, it will take about 20 minutes to get to the track. Which entrance would you like to be dropped off at?” Either outcome leaves me with a feeling of embarrassment, as I must have looked like an ignorant American traveler, which is not far from the truth.
Once I got to the track, I navigated through the gates with relative ease into the main concourse, which is littered with handicapping stalls, betting windows, and my favorite: beer vendors. The betting windows are reserved for those wagering $500 HKD or more per bet, so I had to teach myself how to use the automated betting machine. This definitely gets some frustrating grunts from the people waiting behind me in line, but eventually I figure it out and then head to the track to get right up close on the rail at about a 100m-to-go point.
The day in Hong Kong was beautiful with clear skies and an unusual lift from the smog layer. The temp with was in the mid 60’s with little to no wind. A perfect day for racing.
The first G1 of the day was the $14 million HKD Hong Kong Vase. Snow Fairy had to scratch about 10 days ago due an injury, which left this race wide open in what is usually dominated by the Euros. The break was clean with moderate fractions set by Mighty High. The opening half-mile was run in 50.13, 6 furlongs in 1:15.36, and the mile in 1:39.41. Dunaden, who tracked the pace from the middle of the pack, started to creep up at the start of the stretch. Appearing to lose his kick with about 300 meters to go, the Melbourne Cup winner found another gear at the 1/8 pole and surged between runner up Thumbs Up and Silver Pond to pull ¾ of a length clear to win. He stopped the clock in a respectable 2:27.50 and returned $66.00 HKD on a $10 bet. The favorite, Campanologist, finished 3 lengths back in 4th, while Melbourne Cup runner up, Red Cadeaux finished in a dead heat for third with Silver Pond. Dunaden would be the only non-HK based horse to find the winner’s circle today.
The second race, and in my opinion the most exciting, was the $14 million HKD Sprint. This race was packed with talent headlined by the Singaporean import, Rocket Man. Having the unlucky draw of post 13, Rocket Man was the betting 3rd choice and would finish a disappointing 12th. Once again, there was a clean break, with the pace set by Pas des Trois of 23.61 and 45.94. At the top of the stretch Pas des Trois faded and a three wide stretch run unfolded with Lucky Nine, Entrapment, and Joy and Fun. For nearly 2 furlongs these horses all battled gamely for the lead and separated themselves from the field. At the wire, Lucky Nine got his head in front with Entrapment and Joy and Fun finishing in a dead heat for second. Two lengths back was the third place finisher, Little Bridge. The final time was 1:08.98.
The third G1 was the $20 million HKD Mile. This race was stacked with talent, but with no real standout, it made for a great chance to find favorable odds. Flying Blue was the pacesetter who slipped 4 lengths off the lead in front of 9 year old gelding Able One to ensure a solid pace. Fractions of an opening quarter of 24.02, half in 46.41, and ¾ in 1:10.11 was setting up for a closers dream come true. With 2 furlongs to go, Able One had caught the swift sprinting leader, and passed him with little effort. Then the amazing thing happened and Able One didn’t fade. He held nearly a 1 ½ length lead with about 100m to go until the late charging Cityscape and favored Extension started to gobble up ground. The 9 year old snuck past the wire to hold off the young guns by a neck and stop the clock in a very respectable 1:33.98. I didn’t realize the true gravity of the situation until I checked the results board to see that the return for the win was $668.50 HKD for a $10 bet!! A 9 year old horse with odds of nearly 67-1 had taken down a $20 million HKD international G1. Congratulations to him and his connections on a perfectly run race and excellent win.
The last G1 of the day was the marquee $20 million HKD Hong Kong Cup. This race had gotten a significant amount of hype, with many newspaper headlines titled something like “Will the Dragon Finally be Slain?” The key to the drama of the Cup was Cirrus des Aigles, who at an international rating of 128, was the highest rated horse to grace the turf in Hong Kong. The other reason was the highly anticipated rematch of reigning HK Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and California Memory. Both fantastic closers with jaw dropping turns of foot, Ambitious Dragon held off California Memory by ¾ of a length back in May in the G1 AP QEII Cup. If Ambitious Dragon could win, he would likely become the highest rated horse to ever race out of Hong Kong.
The break was clean to start the race and as expected, Pure Champion, jumped to the early lead and took the role of pace setting. The opening fractions were a sleep inducing 27.38, 53.35, and 1:18.47. Things were not setting up well for the closers. In a brilliant move, Matthew Chadwick, the rider of California Memory, noticed the lazy pace and held his grey gelding in an uncustomary 4th position hugging the rail saving ground to Ambitious Dragon who lay in 8th just off the flank of Cirrus des Aigles. Rounding the final turn and onto the stretch, Douglas Whyte sent Ambitious Dragon for his run and his turn of foot near instantly shot him to the front clearing a neck with about 300m to the finish. At this point, California Memory started his move along the rail, snuck through, and what appeared as nothing short of a grey blur, darted to the lead to clear a length on the Dragon with about 100m to go. There was no catching California Memory today, as he had lots left in the tank after his fantastic trip from Chadwick. California Memory closed the final ¼ mile in a blistering 21.93, finishing the 10 furlongs in 2:04.57. Ambitious Dragon fought gamely with Irian and Zazou, but settled for 4th and Cirrus des Aigles finished a non- threatening 5th. From the overcrowded grandstands of Sha Tin, the cheers for California Memory on his way to the trophy presentation were deafening. We could possibly be seeing a new champion emerge, and what hopes to be a fantastic rivalry for the young 2011/ 12 season in Hong Kong. So there you have it, 4 international G1’s and 3 victories for Hong Kong horses.
Is Hong Kong racing, or its horses, the best in the world? I can support arguments either way. But the talent rising in The Kong scene is undeniable, and with the surge of wealth in the area, maybe all it takes is a couple G1 wins from a no-name to shake up the worldwide bloodlines.
** China is now allowing horse racing simulcast facilities although racing on the mainland is still banned. The Hong Kong Jockey Club recently invested $100 million USD on a Clubhouse in Beijing.