Plunge frenzy a lesson for Club
The atmosphere prior to the final race at Sha Tin last Saturday was as good a pointer as any yet to the area in which Hong Kong racing is failing to meet its market.
One sometimes gets the impression, unexpressed but hanging in the air around some officials at Sports Road, that the gambling part of racing is the unwanted child of an otherwise dashing sport.
Now that's a fine attitude for the anti-gambling lobby, since they draw their purpose in life from interfering with the enjoyments of others, but hardly an ideal stance for the Jockey Club itself.
There is no criticism here of a drive for better quality - in fact, any jockey club which does not have a path to stronger competition amongst its targets is remiss in its duties - but since only a handful of people can actually race horses and we revel in the feats of a proud few, the accessible part of the game to most continues to be gambling and that was what generated the electricity at Sha Tin before Win For All scooped the last race.
With every fresh feed of money into the pools, down came the odds for Win For All, the very horse which was delaying the start and making his backers sweat on the final odds as well as his mood and with it the final result. And every time Win For All turned away from the gates, for every point the odds dropped, the observant folk in the public sections roared with an understanding of the scene playing out before them.
Jockey Brett Prebble starred as Cool Hand Luke and rode with a clinical perfection on Win For All and the big bet was landed. Of course, unlike a plunge in some jurisdictions, everybody finished with the same odds, but the excitement of a big play that comes off is promotion itself in racing. The big plunge in Hong Kong is not what it was in the peak days of the mid-1990s, but they still occur and sometimes with the right result. On a par with the quality rush of a Sunline-Fairy King Prawn toe-to-toe, it is one of the great thrills in racing.
Some professionals are saying the Triple Trio has regained some popularity this season from the decision to split the consolation dividend into three. It seems to have been a successful marketing move to appeal to the punting public, and a rare one at that.
We have seen the admirable rise in the quality of Hong Kong's better horses to a very good standard, though possibly at the expense of some betting turnover. The churn of new stock through the system to sift out the good ones undoubtedly leaves many bettors feeling like they don't know the horses as well as in past seasons, when horses hung around longer and the soundest raced until compulsory retirement at 10.
We have seen the arrival of the super Diamond Vision screen, the introduction of Stride (though its occasional, cameo appearances must be regarded as well-intended rather than successful) and this weekend the world's best and biggest parade ring - as one trainer quipped, along with the Great Wall it is the only man-made structure you can see from the moon. Each is an attempt - at great expense - to win customers with better service, comfort and gimmickry.
The HKJC can hardly promote large, accurate betting plunges but it should not frown when they happen, either. In terms of promotion, money can't buy the $140-to-$48 plunge that comes off.