Interport meetings can't hide that Macau will always be the poor relation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

The fifth running of the Hong Kong-Macau friendship series on the weekend must surely be an appropriate time for reflection on what the interport events have actually achieved.

Macau has enjoyed some secondary benefit, with those two races each year giving their horses the chance to compete against animals with recognised international ratings, and therefore help measure themselves against accepted global benchmarks. But what else has been created as a result of this dalliance?

For those who may not have been around at the time, the birth of the annual two-race series was a diplomatic fall-back position, taken in 2004 after the Hong Kong Jockey Club's due diligence on a potential takeover of its Macau counterpart deemed the deal a non-starter.

For a whole host of reasons, the Hong Kong Jockey Club found the takeover a bridge too far. But out of the abandonment came two things: the agreement for Macau to bet directly into Hong Kong pools, which was in fact the world launch of commingling; and the creation of the interport races each year. Macau racing has struggled since 2002 and Hong Kong - the government rather than the Jockey Club - is squarely to blame. Changes to the gambling ordinance made it illegal for Hong Kongers to bet on anything except products offered by the HKJC, and Macau was hit hard.

Betting turnover graphs in the six years since the ordinance amendment look like the waves on a Hawaii surf beach, with crippling lows and record highs, with lots of volatility but few signs of general health or stability.

The club attracted some big-name international trainers with some big backers, but where are Russell Cameron, Chris McNab, Malcolm Thwaites and Bernand Ang now? Macau is struggling for horse numbers and we're reliably told there are less than 30 horses rated Class One or better across all stables combined. For all the friendship that the cross-delta series might have engendered, it's been limited to smiles and handshakes on two days a year - one at Sha Tin and one at Taipa - but little else that embodies the concept of friendship.

Hong Kong still won't allow ordinary horses which are being retired to go directly to Taipa for a second chance on the less competitive Macau scene, where they might turn a dollar for their owners in Classes Five or Six.

No. HKJC insists owners fly a horse elsewhere, say Australia, and then if they wish return to Macau at significant personal expense. And what can you say about such a heavy-handed policy other than that it is the antithesis of good neighbourliness? In fact, it's not so much about Hong Kong being the nasty big brother, but more about big brother taking the high moral ground.

The ways the two clubs are managed are light years apart, with the MJC being very much a plaything for rich men ... it flies when they are paying attention and slumps dramatically when their focus is elsewhere.

The dream situation would be the Hong Kong Jockey club either owning or managing the Macau franchise along the lines of its own widely admired model. But five years and 10 friendship races down the track, that is no closer to happening than it was on day one.