Turnaround in turnover a healthy sign of another magical season

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am

It was a year of turnover growth, top-level personnel changes and racing success at an international level. We had a sniff of scandal and court drama, but wound up on the right note with landmarks for the champion jockey Douglas Whyte.

The first Group One day of the new year set a good tone for everything that was to follow when Armada won the Stewards Cup for Whyte and trainer John Size, while Floral Pegasus took the Mercedes-Benz Classic Mile for Tony Cruz and Gerald Mosse.

Larry Wong Chi-kong stepped down as chief executive officer of the Jockey Club on January 31 and Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges took over on February 1. Although his appointment had been confirmed in late 2006, Engelbrecht-Bresges hit the ground running and in no time had a deal tied up with the casinos in Las Vegas to start betting into Hong Kong's pools.

In March, EB's replacement as executive director of racing, Bill Nader, signed on after some distinguished service at the New York Racing Association. He hit town full time on April 23 and quickly began making his mark.

Silent Witness ran his last race in early February and was retired to the Living Legends horse park, under the flight path next to Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport in Australia. Silent Witness was officially recognised as the world's greatest sprinter for three straight years (2003-05) and won his first 17 races in succession from December 2002 to April 2005, and one more against international competition in the Sprinters Stakes in Japan in October 2005.

He was the greatest prize-money winner in the history of Hong Kong racing, for a few more weeks at least, until Vengeance Of Rain humbled the world's best 2,400-metre horses in Dubai in the Sheema Classic on March 31.

Vengeance returned to Hong Kong and was humbled himself, twice, by a rampaging Viva Pataca, owned by Stanley Ho Hung-sun. But, astonishingly, when the votes were counted for Horse of the Year honours, up came Vengeance's name and Viva's superb end-of-season form was binned by the judges.

Off the track, the appeal of jockey Chris Munce was thrown out and the shellshocked Australian found himself sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. Munce was later allowed to be transferred to a Sydney jail under a prisoner exchange agreement and while that might still seem a high price to pay for tipping horses but always trying his best, Munce can at least now see his wife and children.

At the conclusion of racing for the summer break on July 2, a new champion trainer was crowned. Caspar Fownes won the title and reflected well-deserved glory on his retired father Lawrie, who trained for 20 years until the end of the 2002-03 term and went oh so close but never quite won a title.

But in the jockeys' department, it was a case of 'as you were', with Douglas Whyte landing a seventh straight title but not before getting a proper challenge from Brett Prebble, who drew level twice in a brave battle with the incumbent during May and June.

Whyte paid his respects to Prebble for making him stretch even more, and gained a huge compliment in return from Prebble, who observed he had never seen anyone want something as much as Whyte wanted that seventh championship trophy.

Whyte provided another highlight on international day, when he broke Tony Cruz's all-time record of 946 wins as a jockey on the appropriately named High Point. He could, foreseeably, break the 1,000-win barrier before season's end.

Betting turnover, finally, came back into the black after a negative trend that consumed nine of the previous 10 seasons. When the trumps at the counting house issued the end-of-season numbers, the total handle on season 2006-07 was HK$63.99 billion, a rise of 6.4 per cent.

Today, after 30 meetings of the new term, the game has grown by another 8.1 per cent, so the racing product is on course to turn over HK$70 billion this season.

There were some sad stories, particularly the accidental death of former trainer Eddie Lo Kwok-chow on May 17. Lo, a former star apprentice jockey who had reached the heights of Group One success as a trainer, had an apparently simple fall at his mother's Causeway Bay flat, hitting his head, but collapsed some hours later and never regained consciousness.

But Felix Coetzee ended the season on a bright note, landing his 600th Hong Kong winner on the appropriately named Special Days on Boxing Day. He's now fifth on the all-time list behind Whyte, Cruz, Basil Marcus and Gary Moore.

After arguably the best-yet Cathay Pacific International races, we have a new world champion sprinter, Sacred Kingdom, and another international-winning trainer, Andreas Schutz (Good Ba Ba).

Each year, we seem to repeatedly think it can't get any better than this. Magically, it does.