Jockey Challenge will keep punters happy
And so the door opens on fixed-odds betting this Sunday and a range of fresh vistas with it as the Jockey Challenge commences at Happy Valley.
Unlike the mentally bankrupt Bracket Win and its barely smarter brother, First Four, the Jockey Challenge opens to a real chance of making itself a worthwhile place amongst what is already a competitive league of wagers.
The reasons are partly cultural, partly its uniqueness in the Hong Kong model. Culturally, it is clear that jockeys here are high profile sportsmen with individual followings beyond what they might expect in other jurisdictions.
Through his sheer, monotonous success, Douglas Whyte may have suffered a fan backlash in public votes for Most Popular Jockey at times but, when it has happened, he might still have won a love-hate vote to confirm that his presence remains just as large in the public mind either way.
In Australia, where the Jockey Challenge is a relatively popular sidelight to a day's racing, riders are not clung to with the same fervour as in Hong Kong, but the bet is still regarded as a success there.
Punters here love to follow their favourites, trusting the likes of Whyte, Prebble & Co to have done the homework for them and found the right horse on the right day. They play jockey roll-ups at times with the reckless regard for odds that brings a grim announcement that win odds for such-and-such 'have been affected by all-up bets'.
Whilst there is a possibility of some minor cannibalisation of roll-ups by Jockey Challenge, it is a different product - without the promise of massive all-up riches but with other possibilities.
The Challenge, for example, can be won by your favourite jockey running seconds all day so the roll-up punter might bet both - one for glory and one to save the day's stake if the luck turns oblong.
The addition of successful fixed odds betting also offers some added sophistication to the hedging possibilities here - imagine you're holding the high-priced ticket on 'Others' to win the Jockey Challenge and Whyte and Brett Prebble are on the last two hot favourites you see standing between you and a dividend.
The Challenge will find its own niche as it does not seriously cut across the terrain of other pools - unlike the introduction of First Four, a natural predator of the Trio in its current style.
Fixed-odds betting may be a racing first but will not be a stranger to punters who have taken to soccer betting with enthusiasm and it will set a path to future possibilities.
We have written before that Jockey Club executives are keen to pursue fixed odds betting on feature races, rightly failing to see why they should allow such markets to be the sole preserve of offshore operators which do nothing for Hong Kong or its racing.
Jockey Challenge is the first step towards that goal and it will also be interesting to see how the club handles its International Jockey Championship next December now - logic decrees that the IJC format be altered to include all races that night, thereby making it also the Challenge bet for one night a year.
In its initial stages, the Challenge will feature displayed fixed odds for 11 riders plus a grouping of all others and odds will be altered by supply and demand considerations.
This column would hope that further life is going to be breathed into the bet down the track by revised betting being available after certain stages of the meeting. The Australian model allows the market to reopen after the first two of what is usually eight races on a card, allowing drastic changes to betting depending on the early results before betting shuts up shop for the main body of the meeting.
Felix Coetzee has outsiders early and favourites late? Watch his odds tumble if one of the outsiders wins. Another rider opens with two hot favourites which are beaten? Watch how the odds change. Of course, the nature of this micro-betting situation would have a few different cultural hurdles of perception to clear.
As Jockey Club figures show, Whyte has been the winner of 50 per cent of the meetings during the 'trial' so far this season, with the order of merit virtually mirroring the jockeys' championship table as Prebble, Coetzee and Darren Beadman have been next in order followed by Howard Cheng Yue-tin (last weekend's winner), Alex Lai Hoi-wing and Marco Chui Kwan-lai.
Punters will swing overwhelmingly to top of the table riders, logically, but consider too that the immensely popular Olivier Doleuze has won the Challenge only once in the 58 meetings.
Or that Eddie Lai Wai-ming, not enjoying a vintage year at this point, has also won the Challenge once.
Or that Beadman would have been one of the better chances on paper last weekend, only to stand down after two rides and instantly become no chance.
Surprises do occur, but long term the only real surprise will be if this new angle to betting on racing here goes the way of Bracket Win.
If it is as successful as expected, then perhaps a Trainer Challenge could soon follow and feature race ante-post betting move into the realm of the likely, rather than the possible.
Out of the placings
Olivier Doleuze only won the Challenge practice run once in this many meetings, despite being backed religiously: 58