Coming in from the outside

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2007, 12:00am

As Bill Nader watched Fairy King Prawn and Sunline stage one of the world's epic races in December, 2000, little did he know he would be back at Sha Tin in such a different capacity seven years later, but that day was certainly one of the key factors when the chance did arrive.

Heading into his first Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races as the Jockey Club's executive director of racing, Nader last week recalled his first experience of Hong Kong and its tremendous enthusiasm for racing.

'I was here in 2000 as a visitor and that day's racing and the excitement of the whole event really opened my eyes to Hong Kong as a city and in terms of its racing,' Nader said. 'And, coming in from outside, I think it's understated or at least not fully appreciated here, just how much the growth of this international race meeting has meant overseas in terms of Hong Kong's reputation as a city. It has made them both a must see, especially for any fan of racing - this is one of the greatest days anywhere in the world.'

And Nader is fully qualified to make that call after a career in the United States closely involved with the Breeders' Cup meeting and 13 years with the New York Racing Association (Nyra) before the move to Sports Road.

'I actually worked freelance with the organisers of the Breeders' Cup for several years before I went to Nyra, and then we hosted the Breeders' Cup there three times - 1995, 2001 and 2005,' he explained. 'And that 2001 Breeders' Cup, I think, is and will probably always be the most memorable day of my life.'

Swathed in tragedy, New York was to showcase North America's annual horse racing championships as the first major sporting event of any kind after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

'It was incredibly emotional. We had to get a government clearance even to go ahead with it; everything had to go through the FBI and the other agencies. Then to see the willingness of people to bring their horses from overseas for it, with all the shock and the uncertainty of that time, and to see the huge crowd having a day out away from the grief - it was really very moving,' Nader said. 'It was a day of rebuilding for the psyche of the nation. The military presence at Belmont was phenomenal, actually quite intimidating when you arrived at the track but, as the day went on, the attention shifted to what was happening on the track and it was a resounding success and relief.

'We had a parade before the races with jockeys coming out carrying a flag for their own nation and another for the US, followed out by the mounted police and then the New York City firefighters joined the parade. Really moving stuff, and very intoxicating.'

Nader also recalled the excitement of the International races at Sha Tin.

'For me, as a racing fan, it doesn't get better than the excitement of top-class international racing, and the Hong Kong Jockey Club's commitment to it was very attractive to me,' Nader explained. 'When I had the chance to come and work here, I looked back to the great moments for me in New York with racing - that Breeders' Cup, or Smarty Jones trying for the Triple Crown in front of 120,000 people in the 2004 Belmont Stakes - and I thought back to that meeting here in 2000 and the thrill of it all, and I thought this was a place where that sort of excitement was on show every year.'

While Hong Kong racing generally gets Nader's blood fired up as a fan of the sport, he said the International Races 'really puts the exclamation point into the story'.

'Everywhere in the world now, horsemen who embrace quality know of Hong Kong in December, and they know that they can't ignore it,' he said. 'The Breeders' Cup may be called the world championships, but first of all it's mostly on dirt, which excludes a lot of the world, and it doesn't get the spread of international participation from so many countries that Hong Kong does.

'At Monmouth Park in this year's Breeders' Cup, local horses from New York won all the races. That's great for New York, and when I was at the Nyra I won't deny we used to puff our chests out from those sorts of results, but it doesn't ring true as an international event. Hong Kong has the closest thing to an Olympic Games in horse racing, which lifts the whole place and gives people one more reason to come and see a great international event in a great international city.'