It’s strange to think there was a time when Hong Kong only had racing on a Saturday- and only at Happy Valley racecourse.
Night racing at the city track was introduced later and had its surreal moments like the time when local rider Louis Ho simply stopped riding How Good, the 9.5 favourite, when having the race shot to bits. Think he was disqualified for six months. But it were those Saturday afternoon races in the mid Seventies and when Hong Kong was still a British colony that were big days for my family, especially my Aunt and Uncle who had their favourite jockeys and all kinds of conspiracy theories. When having seen local jockeys practice the art of jumping off horses in case they might have actually won a race, of course there were conspiracy theories.
My Aunt, for example, was absolutely convinced that the main photograph in the racing section of the SCMP was a “picture tip” to insiders. She would spend hours dissecting these photographs before solving the riddle and coming up with her numbers. She never ever won.
Everyone had their favourite tipsters along with those they believed were steering people the wrong way. The popular SCMP tipsters panel at the time comprised Robin “Parkie” Parke, Kenneth Liang, and Peter “Metro” Metrevelli, pictured below, and son of Russian trainer Nick Metrevelli.
There was also “Captain Midnight” aka Aussie Bob Sanders who owned the Mexican restaurant Casa Mexicana where some of us might have danced on their tables at one time or another without even realising it. The tequila shots were lethal. So was manageress Bette Harvey singing “Kansas City” backed by a trio of Filipino serenaders.
The Captain was the most interesting of the tipsters because of his friendship with many of the jockeys and trainers involved in racing in those days- Bruce Hutchison, David Brosnan, Peter Gumbleton, Peter Miers, Nigel Tiley, Geoff Lane and others-all of whom would visit Casa Mexicana during lunchtime. So did Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club Director of Racing Philip Johnstone and former professional footballer Derek Currie, someone who was very much part of horse racing’s inner circle, who became the marketing man for Carlsberg and sponsored the tipsters panel.
It was “Parkie”, however, who ruled the roost and was one of the first to see the marketing opportunities that horse racing in Hong Kong held. He had the Irish gift of the gab, he enjoyed a good time, and whenever he would see us younger guys hanging out at a nightclub like the Mocambo, he’d give us a few dollars to have a good time.
Though of course enjoying the punt, “Parkie” had that entrepreneurial spirit. He was driven to make horse racing in Hong Kong better. He was also instrumental in convincing an unknown in Douglas Whyte to try his luck in Hong Kong. We lost “Parkie” much too soon.
As for the racing product in those days, well, no one really knew good from bad. It was more about having something to do on a Saturday afternoon and trying to make the most of the eight races on the card so we could have a good night out.
Saturday racing in Hong Kong continues to attract the hardcore local racing uncles and aunties, but it somehow seems out of sync with the times. There’s also the perception that it’s an inferior product to Sunday racing. It often is.
The racing last Saturday had its moments though perhaps not to do with the races, three of which were on the dirt. It had more to do with the jockeys and who would do best amongst them, especially when it came to the current battle going on at the top of the Jockeys Premiership between Joao Moreira and Zac Purton.
The latter has been riding in superb form and with a confidence that borders on laid back arrogance.
His treble on Wednesday and double on Saturday has whittled down the mercurial Brazilian’s lead from fifteen to eleven. But as he knows all too well, Moreira is like a coiled rattlesnake waiting to strike anytime with a five, six or eight timer.
It makes for an absorbing horse opera not seen since the year Douglas Whyte overturned what seemed an unassailable lead by Brett Prebble to win his tenth consecutive Hong Kong Jockey Championship.
These side shows get everyone’s adrenaline going. That particular battle royale had my then-girlfriend, who was not a racing fan, more interested in what was going on than I did though friends with Douglas Whyte and whom she had met with me. Being Danish, she was creative and had all kinds of ideas including a DW 10/10 brand of clothing, a radically different and dedicated website for Whyte etc. She was going to be bigger than Lego.
Though, as usual, nothing materialised except for empty talk, like our relationship, it was interesting while it lasted just as the current Joao Zac Show is. It adds to everything else. And this “everything else” is hugely important in reaching the wide consumer group out there with a buffet of leisure activities from which to choose and with many having a huge aversion to losing even one cent.
Let’s not forget that we’re talking here about an entire generation who has grown up believing that everything is for free.
It’s strange to think back to those days of the Whyte-Prebble rivalry, which really weren’t that long ago, and realise just how much technology has changed the world forever, how it’s impacted lives and changed thinking so much that the dog is wagging the tail.
Social media? Does this really work for horse racing or is it the same handful of people “twalking” to each other?
Personally, the marketing of horse racing and the job of creating original content are still to really embrace technology effectively and realising that The Technique Is Not The Idea. A tweet is not an idea. Neither are hundreds of photographs of horses or horse racing on Instagram where friends just aimlessly press the “like” button to be polite and “popularity” can be bought. It’s meaningless. And stupid.
What’s the answer? This is not the place for sharing free ideas, but the music video below sets a new standard in creative brilliance. Can horse racing ever create something as clever as this and which is relevant to the many consumer groups out there who are today spoiled for choice and living in the age of entitlement?
As for the racing at Sha Tin on Saturday, while our minds wandered to what was and what could be, we watched Victor Wong aka The Mower Man when riding in Adelaide who is settling in to racing in Hong Kong.
For the The Mower Man, Hong Kong is brand new turf dominated by some of the best riders in the world and he’s learning through trial and error.
On Saturday, there was at least one Mr Bean moment, but his two winners showed a 10-pound claiming apprentice not prepared to just lead at all costs and hold on for dear life. He’s not a one trick pony. There’s variety in his repertoire.
The arrival of Wong seems to have also added extra steam to the Poon Train- the other 10-pound claimer Matthew Poon- who seems to have chilled and curbed the tendency to bustle his rides out and push them hard and fast and look like Animal from the Muppets.
By the way, what’s Kei Chiong up to these days?After the not unexpected announcement that she was giving up the game, the one-time pinup girl of Hong Kong racing seems to have done a disappearing act.
Deciding on a new career for such a young girl after spending so much of her youth trying to be a successful jockey and having probably enjoyed most of the ride couldn’t be easy.
Still with apprentices, another gaining experience in Adelaide before returning to Hong Kong- Alfred Chan- is banging home the winners. The question is with these apprentices and other very capable senior riders able to ride light, what happens to jockeys like Eddie Lai and Alvin Ng, both of whom are not exactly in demand?
Yes, Eddie Lai, who quite recently rode his third winner of the season and is closing in on a personal milestone- three winners away from riding his 300th winner after seemingly riding in Hong Kong alongside Ben Hur- but with almost no support other than going around on no hopers looking for class drops, their “roles” in Hong Kong racing couldn’t even be described as that of “bit players”.
They’re here, but not really other than making up the quota of local riders needed. Pity if that’s their only role. It’s hardly career advancement. It’s not exactly motivating. It must be puzzling.
Career advancement is certainly what’s driving that man from Sardenia Alberto Sanna. Not shy to openly admit that he’s here to win, win, win while singing ABBA’s “Money Money Money”, this objective was made very clear with the way he bounced back recently after a terrible looking fall to run back to the jockeys room and get ready to ride in the next race.
On Saturday, despite dislocating his shoulder during the race, it didn’t stop him fighting the pain threshold and getting his ride home to collect the prize money for fourth place. And when Umberto Rispoli won on Namjong Invisible, one couldn’t help admiring the resilience of the Italian to bounce back and return to horse racing just ten days after shattering his collarbone.
Neil Callan might not be the only Iron Man of Hong Kong racing anymore though following the recent birth of his and lovely wife Trish’s fourth son- Will Oliver- the Irishman is seen as a bit of a stud muffin.
That bloodcurdling scream when he recently won on Beauty Only now makes sense. There are more school fees to pay.
If there was a highlight to the races on Saturday, it was the win of Douglas Whyte on the David Hall trained Gracious Ryder. Sent out at 46 to 1, Whyte slowly and steadily reeled in the leader who looked home and hose- Aerohappiness, the $1.70 favourite ridden by Joao Moreira and trained by John Size.
Though Whyte mentioned on Instagram about how happy he was to ride a winner for Hall after so long, his extremely loud whoop after the winning post which could have even scared Neil Callan surely had much to do with beating a runner sent out by the trainer who was once his biggest supporter.
These days John Size doesn’t even throw him a crumb whereas beating the man who now wears the Jockey Championship crown that, until Zac Purton won it in 2013 before Hong Kong racing ushered in the Moreira era, and almost seemed to belong to Douglas Whyte forever, must have given him tremendous satisfaction.
It was Douglas Whyte rolling back the years and a reminder to some of us of what once was, where we’re at now and how much in the world has changed in one Facebook moment. No one said it’s changed for the better.
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