Master Plan sexes up the experience

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 July, 2012, 12:00am


Records weren't broken and the impossible didn't happen, yet Jockey Club chief Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges called the 2011-12 season 'the best ever'.

A touch of scandal was missing, with only Maxime Guyon's whip strike at Keith Yeung Ming-lun mid-straight at Sha Tin offering anything tasty, but the season scored highly in almost every area.

Betting shared the stage with its duller stablemate, infrastructure, as the season opened - the club's threat to take commingling offshore versus the unveiling of the 'Master Plan'.

After years of teasing, the Jockey Club presented the HK$7 billion plan and the upgrading and sexifying of Happy Valley and Sha Tin. Engelbrecht-Bresges cast these improvements and others as 'customer-centric' - experiences tailored to different customer groups - and says the reversal of a downward trend in crowds was no accident.

Among attempts to attract younger audiences to Happy Valley were The Gallery, a remodelled Adrenalin club, with the beer garden continuing to exceed expectations. Live bands took it up a notch again and the youth push extended to the Race Simulator phone app and IBU, a new interactive table-top approach to betting.

The club is not letting the grass grow under its feet. Turnover was up by 7.1 per cent at HK$86.1 billion - 34 per cent in six years - and government duty passed HK$10 billion, but government issues remain. The Jockey Club continues to push for a more equitable sharing of the turnover success and then there is commingling.

In September, Engelbrecht-Bresges came out fighting on commingling, where bets placed in one country on a race in another are channelled to the betting pool where the race is staged. Australia and South Africa are taking the lead, while Hong Kong is still hamstrung by double taxation.

'We don't have any plan to go offshore at this stage, but it is something we would have to consider if we do not get action soon,' he said. 'The external forces on all sides are building up and we are going to be shut out. We don't live in a vacuum -- these operations can endanger our business here.'

While the club was crowing about building plans, trainers David Ferraris and Sean Woods were enduring another tough season with construction across from their Olympic stables driving the horses crazy. In January, Woods had to kill rumours he would leave.

That construction ends soon but it will begin this season in the main Sha Tin stables, and relieving the ageing centre by using Conghua, outside Guangzhou, was put back from 2013 to 2014 at best.

We farewelled Sacred Kingdom, Able One and also former great Vengeance Of Rain, dead of a heart attack in New Zealand aged 11. Another retired star, Good Ba Ba, brought angry words across the Pearl River Delta in December when it became known owner John Yuen Se-kit wished to continue the 10-year-old's career in Macau.

Hong Kong horses were successful, topped by Little Bridge's Royal Ascot win, the fifth international but the only away win, and 21 horses were among the world's best. Three local wins decorated the international races in December, and the Jockey Club announced a new partner when Longines edged Cathay Pacific aside this month.Ambitious Dragon won a second Horse of the Year , while his defeat in the Champions Mile saw trainer Tony Millard and champion jockey Douglas Whyte part ways angrily. John Size won his seventh championship, including the Derby, and Richard Gibson's arrival provided the other highlight - his 35-win debut bettered only by Size and Ivan Allan previously.

Falls were back and all in a week: Brett Prebble broke a collarbone and was back in three weeks, apprentice Vincent Ho Chak-yiu fractured an arm the same February day and was back riding work this month. Darren Beadman's fall in a trial days later was the saddest outcome, causing serious head trauma that may end his great career. His case may awaken robust discussion between the club and riders on whether insurance covering jockeys is up to standard.