Not to sound corny or come across as if alien fairies abducted me to visit Never Never Land before returning me to Planet Earth, but after a somewhat low key start to this racing season in Hong Kong, it’s suddenly blossomed into a field of dreams happening in the real world.
While Adele once lamented how “we could have had it all”, someone’s suddenly pressed the On button and the show has begun in earnest with almost every meeting over the past few months giving racing fans something new to cheer about.
We have it all, Adele, and we’re rolling in the deep. It’s not always about turnover figures- not to the rank and file race goer. They want that X factor. It’s what every industry needs to stay fresh, exciting, entertaining and young at heart.
Who could not be moved when Olivier Doleuze won the Centenary Sprint in January aboard DB Pin?
There were many thinking this might be the popular Frenchman’s last season of riding here. “Ollie” might have been thinking the same thing as good rides with winning chances were becoming increasingly scarce. After all, he isn’t a Joao Moreira or Zac Purton who can pick and choose rides and have a support system comprising the big stables with the powerful owners.
Still, that master horseman John Size knew what he was doing. He persisted in supporting the “veteran” jockey whose last Group 1 winner in Hong Kong was five years ago, and Olivier Doleuze repaid this loyalty. Loyalty in horse racing in Hong Kong? It can happen. Really.
The win on DB Pin will probably be the comeback story of the season. And a wonderful Feel Good moment. “Ollie” added to his Renaissance Period with a memorable win on the weekend aboard Maqula. It was only a Class 4 race, but again it was repaying the support of trainer Michael Chang and owner Edmond So of one-time popular local Canto Pop boy group Grasshopper. Guess they’re now a man group.
Standing up in the irons and pointing at the grandstands, the fist pumping and sheer joy in the winning enclosure said it all. Words were superfluous.
A week earlier, young Chad Schofield flexed his muscles and rode a great four timer including taking out the 2018 Hong Kong Classic Cup on the Tony Millard trained South African galloper Singapore Sling and one of the favourites to take out the BMW Derby next month.
With his very pretty girlfriend Hannah being an Instagram hit, and, more and more, attracting the attention of younger racegoers and even non racegoers, here’s a couple who could easily be the future face of Hong Kong racing. They’re both also very nice people. There’s that likability factor making its presence felt.
As for the win of Singapore Sling, it could just signal a new wave of South African success stories in Hong Kong not seen since the glory days when Douglas Whyte, the Durban Demon, ruled Hong Kong racing for thirteen successive years.
And what about Douglas Whyte? Anyone who knows anything about the champion rider will tell you that he knows how to look after numero uno. His best years in the saddle might be behind him, but that’s not to say he’s going anywhere anytime soon. Not even to trample grapes in his vineyard in Tuscany. He’s looking more and more like the forgotten gunman knowing the townsfolk will soon need him to put his badge back on. Douglas Whyte can never ever be ignored.
There is then the new equine talent, among them probably being Hong Kong’s new racing star- Singapore Sling, Fifty Fifty, below, Pingwu Spark, Exultant, Time Warp, Lean Journey, Nothingilikemore, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Lockheed, Good Omen and a few others.
Keeping the Jockey Premiership alive and breathing is the on-course rivalry between Joao Moreira and Zac Purton. No longer is it one way traffic with the mercurial Brazilian horseman creating new records and then breaking them by riding trebles, quartets and even a remarkable eight timer which he made look remarkably easy. He’s still pulling rabbits and enchiladas out of his sombrero, but the Zac Attack has his own didgeridoo mojo working overtime.
When the brilliant Australian rider brought home four winners on Sunday including taking out both Group 1 races in the Classic Cup and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup aboard Time Warp and Beauty Generation, respectively, for the two biggest racing dynasties in Hong Kong- the Siu and Kwok families with their “Beauty” horses, it showed a determined jockey having changed career gears.
His ride on Time Warp where he rated the horse perfectly in the front showed just how in sync he is with the Tony Cruz trained galloper. The fact that Time Warp broke Shatin’s oldest course record record held by the great Jim And Tonic speaks volumes for horse, trainer and rider. Thankfully, the usual Hype Train is still at the station.
Other than riding brilliantly and being confidence personified, we’re also seeing Zac Purton create a brand personality for himself. One might be “the best jockey in the world”, but without a strong personality, that title ends there. A strong personality is a USP. It makes one stand out from the crowd. Someone has to be Billy The Kid to Wyatt Earp and James Dean to Gary Cooper. Or an Austin Powers to James Bond to keep everything shaken and stirred.
Today’s Zac Purton model is no longer saddled with the words “brash” and “cocky”. There’s a smarter model- quotable, open, helpful, and active on social media. He’s unpredictable in a more restrained way. He’s needed this ammunition to compete with Joao Moreira’s ability to say the right thing and know exactly how to play to the cameras.
This is where he’s really The Magic Man. The hugely popular Brazilian is a marketer’s dream machine with an innate knowledge in knowing how to market himself. Watching the Joao Moreira-Zac Purton duel taking place gives racing in Sha Tin the on-course excitement it’s needed.
Last Sunday also saw the return of Pakistan Star- the eagerly anticipated return from the wilderness of this incredibly special galloper with a mind of his own which one doubts even any horse whisperer can get into and understand.
Pakistan Star is not “quirky” nor “enigmatic” nor of plush toy status. Not yet. He’s his own man and is, simply put, special. He knows it. His first run in the Hong Kong Gold Cup over 2000 metres to come fourth after eight months of him trying to find himself wasn’t “encouraging”. It was the galloper stepping out for a stroll with his old friend Matthew Chadwick aboard and taking it all in. Others can second guess all they want. Pakistan marches to the beat of his own tabla.
It was Pakistan Star saying, “I’ll be back”. And he will. On his terms.
Meanwhile at Happy Valley, the Happy Wednesday brand has evolved into an international community of young fashionistas and the Style Police together with a mix of ‘live’ music, camera crews, selfies, tourists and venues not seen on any racetrack anywhere in the world.
There will be those who will always try to copy the formula. But we all know what they say about imitation whereas the “formula” here is that there’s no formula. It’s all about evolution and revolution and reading the mood of the city and its customers.
Happy Wednesday is a a brand that’s a reality show waiting to happen. It’s a tourist destination. It’s horse racing’s Disneyland and Ocean Park. It might be time for Olivier Doleuze, a martial arts expert and part time EDM DJ with his home studio where he mixes his own tracks to appear at the Beer Garden.
Chad Schofield’s girlfriend Hannah Butler truly represents the Happy Wednesday customer profile. Perhaps she’ll be a Happy Wednesday ambassador?
Kel Segovia who performs with Jennifer Palor and the outstanding band at the venue Adrenaline is recording original material that’s making him known outside of Hong Kong.
There’s something else new happening: The powerful stables these days are not necessarily the holy trinity of John Size, Tony Cruz and John Moore. Local trainers like Danny Shum, Benno Yung, Peter Ho, and, especially Frankie Lor, below with mentor John Size, are nipping at their heels.
Many local trainers are no longer saddled with horses in the lower grades. Danny Shum has Seasons Bloom. Peter Ho has Fifty Fifty. Benno Yung has Pingwu Spark. And with local trainers relying mainly on local riders, this season has seen the emergence of local heroes like jockeys Derek Leung, below, Matthew Poon and the vastly improved apprentices Dylan Mo and Jack Wong. The void left by female apprentice Kei Chiong’s decision to retire has been more than filled.
In music, one of the worst things an artist wishes to hear is that their music appeals to “everyone”. It’s a polite way of saying the music is bland, predictable and neither here nor there.
For the HKJC, when stepping back and looking at the racing product as part of sports entertainment offering something for everybody, it means broadening that customer base. It means reaching different customer demographics with a buffet of choices. It means there’s a field of dreams out there with everyone involved having a role to play.
There’s a pride of ownership in Hong Kong racing which is seen as a much needed pastime from the stresses of daily life. It’s fun. Remember what horse racing is like when it’s fun?
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