Bridging the great Delta Divide
The Hong Kong-Macau Trophy to be staged at Sha Tin is not just another showpiece, it may represent the dismantling of the Berlin Wall of Asia's horse racing scene, writes Murray Bell
Michael Kent calls it the 'greatest thing to happen to racing in this region'. That's the perspective from the normally understated trainer of the real significance of next Sunday's inaugural Hong Kong-Macau Trophy, to be staged at Sha Tin.
The Trophy, a major step in healing the Delta Divide, is not just another horse race. It may represent the dismantling of the Berlin Wall of Asian horse racing scene. It is the first hard evidence of co-operation between the Macau Jockey Club and its big brother on the other side of the Pearl River delta, the all-powerful Hong Kong Jockey Club, and it seems there's much more to come.
When it comes to power, there has never been any real balance between the HKJC and the MJC. With more than a century of history, an annual wagering turnover of $72 billion, an annual contribution to charity of $1 billion and a list of stewards that represents the upper echelons of Hong Kong society, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has clout with a capital C.
But from humble origins, the Macau Jockey Club has grown significantly. It only came into existence in 1989, following the conversion of the ill-fated and financially-troubled Macau Trotting Club, but things really got serious after 1991 when the club was purchased by a consortium headed by casino tycoon Dr Stanley Ho Hung-sun.
But for the 12 years from Ho's takeover until 1993, the relationship between the clubs has been characterised by antagonism with a capital A.
Looking back, it was not just the financial muscle of Dr Ho - rated by Forbes Magazine last year as the 303rd richest man in the world, with a net worth of US$1.4 billion - but rather his business and negotiating skills that enabled Macau to stay in the race with Hong Kong and not be completely crushed.
He led the way in 1997 by securing the signature of John Schreck as chief steward and director of racing - a move so admired by Hong Kong that they headhunted Schreck to become their new chief steward in 1999 after the departure of American Clinton Pitts.
Ian Paterson, formerly Schreck's deputy on the Australian Jockey Club stewards' panel in Sydney, was anointed by him to take over after the Sheriff's departure for Hong Kong and Paterson has been on board for the rest of the journey.
'I guess the most important thing about next week's Hong Kong-Macau Trophy is the recognition it represents for Macau,' Paterson said. 'It has always been hard to Macau horses to be invited anywhere because people say they only race among themselves and they question whether the form will stand up.
'Well, things are changing. A Macau horse Grand Stand, trained by Peter Leyshan, won in Dubai on Thursday night and now we have the chance for Macau horses to race in Hong Kong in this Trophy race next week. I really believe this is the start of a new era for Macau.'
In fact, the new era began in May, 2002, but under much less happy circumstances. The Hong Kong Government made some significant changes to the Gambling Ordinance, primarily designed to stop money leaving the country through internet betting but which had the 'unintended consequences' of making it illegal for Hong Kong citizens to bet on Macau racing.
At the time, a Macau Sunday meeting would hold around $50 million in bets but those holdings halved in a heartbeat after Hong Kong's legislative changes.
That was when the genius of Stanley Ho shone through. With Macau Jockey Club seeming to be on its knees, Ho suggested Macau might begin betting on Hong Kong races, through independent betting pools and perhaps at a discounted rate.
Having undoubtedly gained the HKJC's attention, Ho soon found himself in an audience with his HKJC counterpart, Ronald Arculli, during which he mentioned that the bigger organisation might like to think about buying out its baby brother on the other side of the delta. It was the Theodore Roosevelt lesson in diplomacy - talk softly but carry a big stick.
While HKJC executives were burning the midnight oil doing the due diligence on a potential buyout, Ho launched the next stage of the plan. He brought in a number of bookmakers - which the MJC likes to call betting agents - and licensed them to bet with off-course clientele from a base on the fifth floor of the Taipa grandstand during race meetings. The catch is they had to put an agreed amount of their turnover back through the MCJ totalisator - a condition the 'agents' were only too happy to sign off on as a reward for being able to take their business from the shadows of illegality to the embrace of respectability.
Before Ho's betting agent brainstorm was hatched, the daily turnover record at Macau was just over $60 million. It's now $154 million, and the club is regularly doing turnover of over $120 million at a weekend race meeting.
When the economics of buying out Macau changed so dramatically, the clubs put their newly discovered camaraderie to use and created the Hong Kong-Macau Trophy races. The first one, on Classic Mile day at Sha Tin next Sunday, offers prize money of $2.3 million - the equivalent of a domestic Group Three race.
Kent, who trained in Melbourne before a five-year tenure in Singapore, has been Macau-based for over two years. He says racing in the former Portuguese enclave has never been more exciting.
'This is a very big thing for Macau owners,' Kent began. 'The race has created a lot of interest here and will stimulate our owners to raise their sights and buy better horses. 'It is good for Macau to enjoy a better relationship with Hong Kong. It makes sense. Macau is almost like a provincial track for Hong Kong and there are a lot of positive things the two clubs could do together for their mutual benefit. Racing here is thriving, very buoyant and it will keep getting better.'
Macau's professional register of jockeys and trainers tends to have a very Hong Kong look about it. The club has been quick to forgive both major and minor indiscretions from potential licence holders in their pre-Macau lives and allow them to get on with the two-fold business of making a living and improving the business of Macau racing. Gary Moore, MC Tam and Olivier Doleuze all received second chances in Macau and proved their worth, while compulsorily retired Hong Kong trainers like Brian Kan Ping-chee and Wong Tang Ping are extending their working lives there.
Sure, next week's Hong Kong-Macau race is a novelty. But its real significance in the history of these two Asian racing jurisdictions may take a lot longer to accurately measure.