Horse Racing
Hong Kong racing pulls together to complete extraordinary season

16/07/2020 15:45

Hong Kong’s “season like no other” ended at Happy Valley on Wednesday, 15 July with Ricky Yiu securing an odds-defying champion trainer title that was most certainly in keeping with the campaign’s extraordinary backdrop.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club navigated the uncertainty of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic decisively, implementing measures that protected public and employee health, and enabled the sport to continue; and also managed issues related to demonstrations in the city, which caused significant traffic disruptions to customers and staff, and which had a significant impact on attendance.

Exceptional sport was witnessed, notably the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races, FWD Champions Day and an uplifting night at the LONGINES International Jockeys’ Championship, while Golden Sixty emerged as a local hero with his brilliant clean sweep of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, Exultant excelled and Beauty Generation was the world’s top-rated miler.

The Club closed out the season’s 87th and final meeting – one less than last season – having hosted a record 828 races and simulcast 164 overseas races, and posted turnover of HK$121.6 billion which was only 2.6 percent down on the record 2018/19 figure. The Happy Valley finale alone produced turnover of HK$1.6 billion, a record for a fixture at the iconic city-side venue.

Mr. Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Chief Executive Officer at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, commented: “While we recognise that the Coronavirus situation is an ongoing battle, and we must remain vigilant, I can say that it has been heartening to see the Hong Kong community pull together and play a crucial part in combatting its effects; the Hong Kong Jockey Club has been quick to reflect and enact those safeguarding measures and policies while continuing to race.

“We are pleased to have been able to complete a full season but of course our prime focus throughout, and a real challenge, was to act responsibly to protect the public health and safety of our staff, customers and the wider community, at every turn, while at the same time balancing that with the desire for our sport to continue.”

Hong Kong racing closed its doors to the public at an early juncture in order to comply with government directions and regulations, and by 29 March the official attendance was zero. The Club’s alignment with government policy meant that limited numbers of people were gradually allowed back on-course, with numbers still restricted tightly. Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges offered his apologies to racing fans and hoped for their understanding.

He said: “Our first reduced attendance measures were introduced for the Chinese New Year meeting on 27 January; all OCBBs (Off-Course Betting Branches) were closed until further notice the following week; and from that point on all our trainers, jockeys and key racecourse staff were placed in a carefully crafted ‘Racing Bubble’.

“At all times we knew that one positive test from within that bubble could have meant racing would go the way of the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens and so many other major sports and public events. But the bubble we created – which set a template for racing all around the world – has remained intact.

“I am thankful to our employees for their dedication and hard work, and to our licensed persons who were key to keeping racing going. Through their efforts, we were able to provide valuable stay-at-home entertainment for hundreds of thousands of racing fans at a time when social distancing was of paramount importance.”

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges highlighted the Jockey Club’s response in regard to the swift mass purchase of face masks through the Emergency Fund, set up for vulnerable groups, as well as the wide range of community support initiatives the Club set up at short notice to assist the Hong Kong people.

He said: “This city shows time and time again that it has a remarkable ‘Can-Do Spirit’ and that has been apparent in the community as a whole, and also within racing. It has been difficult, and it may continue to be so for some time yet, but by continuing racing we have shown Hong Kong’s ability to face great challenges and overcome them.”

World class sport

Hong Kong racing once again delivered 10 and a half months of captivating sport, underpinned by brilliant achievements and world class action.

Ricky Yiu’s first champion trainer title, with 67 wins, was unexpected when the campaign started and came at the end of an enthralling three-way battle with Francis Lui and Tony Cruz; all are homegrown products, each having started out at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Apprentice Jockeys’ School in the 1970s.

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges noted: “It’s astonishing to think that these three homegrown trainers have something like 150 years of experience between them working under the Hong Kong Jockey Club banner!”

Vincent Ho’s achievements this year further emphasised the quality of horsemen the Hong Kong system is producing. Ho returned from a Shergar Cup success at Ascot last summer and enjoyed his best ever season, notably a perfect partnership with Golden Sixty that climaxed with a breathtaking BMW Hong Kong Derby win; and the rider claimed a first G1 victory on Southern Legend in the FWD Champions Mile.

The CEO said: “Vincent Ho’s progress has been wonderful to watch and he is now proving that he has the attributes of a top jockey. Golden Sixty’s win in the BMW Hong Kong Derby was the first time since 1988 that the Derby-winning owner, trainer and jockey were all homegrown and this is further indicative of the work that the Club has been committed to over a long period of time to develop local talent.”

Zac Purton and Joao Moreira kept the racing world gripped for much of the season before Purton drew clear to seal the champion jockey title with 147 wins. Purton also became the first rider in history to complete a full set of Hong Kong’s 12 G1 races, thanks to Exultant in the FWD QEII Cup; and his most famous partner Beauty Generation became the first Hong Kong horse to earn HK$100 million in prize money.

In December, the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races saw three stars from Japan – Win Bright, Admire Mars and Glory Vase – carry off the Hong Kong Cup, Hong Kong Mile and Hong Kong Vase, while Hong Kong’s own Beat The Clock took the Sprint.

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges said: “We have an unwavering goal to provide world class racing here in Hong Kong and our LONGINES Hong Kong International Races attracted some of the best horses and horsemen in the world, and produced one of the most memorable days in Asian racing history.

“The Club is determined to maintain those world class standards and to do that prize money is a key element. We are committed to rewarding owners to encourage their continued investment in the sport, and we also want to attract the best horses and horsemen from around the world to compete in our races, especially the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races and FWD Champions Day; and this is why we have increased our prize money for next season by five per cent to HK$1.4 billion.

“We now have the richest Group 1 sprint, the richest Group 1 turf contests at 1400 metres, 1600 metres and 2000 metres; we have increased our Group 1 races to a minimum of HK$12 million, and our Four-Year-Old Classic Series races will offer record purses next season, with the BMW Hong Kong Derby worth HK$24 million. This is all necessary to keep Hong Kong in the front rank of world racing and provide the best quality for our fans and customers.”

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges also noted the departure of one of Hong Kong’s legends, and the return of a past champion ahead of next season.

He said: “This was John Moore’s final season as a Hong Kong trainer and he leaves an amazing legacy, with his seven championships, a record 1,735 wins and all-time leading prize money of more than HK$2 billion; he has won 36 Group 1 races, the Hong Kong Derby a record six times, and he has trained two world champions in Able Friend and Beauty Generation. It is fitting to salute his achievements and wish him well as he moves to his next chapter.

“We are now looking forward to seeing what David Hayes can achieve on his return to Hong Kong’s trainer roster after 15 years. Since he was champion trainer here previously, he has gone on and enhanced his reputation as a champion and big-race trainer in Australia – his return emphasises the Club’s dedication to recruiting world class talent.”

Hayes is one of 16 trainers who will be dual-licensed to operate out of the Jockey Club’s Conghua facility in Guangdong Province, which opened in August 2018. Conghua proved its worth this season: 17 of champion trainer Ricky Yiu’s wins came from horses that went to the races off a stay at Conghua since their previous start, and the season saw 139 such winners in total.

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges said: “The vision of Conghua is yielding positive results and we are delighted with the success we are seeing. We can build on this good beginning, and Conghua will especially help us as we decant the Sha Tin stables and begin our massive investment to upgrade those facilities.

“The cross-border transportation of horses is of course vital to Conghua and we have been able to continue to keep that cross-border transportation going without disruption, thanks to the great support of the Hong Kong government and especially the government authorities of Guangdong Province, Guangzhou and Conghua.”

Turnover and contributions

Hong Kong’s total racing turnover was HK$121.6 billion, which was down only 2.6 percent on the previous season and was still the third-highest ever despite COVID-19 placing severe pressure on domestic wagering in Hong Kong.

The turnover on Hong Kong racing by Hong Kong customers understandably declined by 8.3 percent due to the effects of the Club’s 100 OCBBs being closed or operating on reduced opening from early February, and fans unable to attend the racecourse for almost half the season.

Turnover dipped by almost 26 percent in early February but wagering rallied through the later part of the season and climaxed with Happy Valley’s record turnover at the finale fixture. The impacts on OCBBs necessitated a change and resulted in the Club helping customers migrate online.

There were further positives as total commingling turnover increased to a record HK$23.58 billion, up 25.3 percent on last season; and Hong Kong racing fans continued to show a growing interest in the sport overseas, as evidenced in the 12.9 percent increase in the Club’s simulcast turnover.

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges said: “Our overall season’s racing turnover of more than HK$121 billion is pleasing in light of the significant challenges as it only reduced by 2.6 percent. Commingling continues to be a huge growth area for the Club.”

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges noted the “strategic value of commingling,” in which people from around the world participate and bet on Hong Kong racing, and observed that the figures show the global appeal and growing interest in Hong Kong racing around the world.

“We are pleased with how popular our simulcasts are with Hong Kong customers and we are keen to do more,” he said.

“Furthermore, we are pleased with how much interest our customers have in our simulcast programmes from the leading race meetings around the world. We saw this even more in the second World Pool at Royal Ascot, which proved a huge success – with individual race turnover up by more than 49 percent on 2019 – and we look forward to expanding the World Pool concept next season, with Hong Kong as a vital hub for global wagering.”

The Hong Kong Jockey Club runs racing with a core purpose being the betterment of society as a whole; the Club is the city’s largest tax payer and this racing season alone has paid HK$12.113 billion to the Hong Kong government, while a significant contribution, including special emergency COVID-19 funding support, has been paid in charitable contributions to a wide range of causes.

Mr. Engelbrecht-Bresges said: “There was a compelling public interest element to our desire to continue racing through COVID-19, from Chinese New Year to the end of the season, during which time our tax contribution from racing was more than HK$6.2 billon. This has enabled us to not only keep donations at last year’s level but also increase it due to our contributions via the COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

“We are incredibly proud that the Club could continue to make such a contribution and, the benefits of completing a full season will be felt by millions of people across Hong Kong over the coming months.”

The CEO praised the resilience of the Hong Kong community and thanked racing fans, owners, Club members, horsemen, the media, and Club staff in particular, for their patience, dedication and efforts in ensuring the 2019/20 racing season was able to continue in safety.