Yes, we have the world's best, but do we realise it?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2008, 12:00am

One of my favourite, albeit borrowed, sayings is that a fish cannot see water - that is all it knows. And many punters fail to fully appreciate Hong Kong racing for that very reason - they haven't experienced lower-grade alternatives.

The return of action to Sha Tin on Monday was a stunning reminder of just how wonderful the 'sport of kings' - or should that be king of sports - truly is in Hong Kong.

The meeting went off without a hitch, launched with the sweetly swung strike of the gong by the Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and was wonderful entertainment on a sunny public-holiday afternoon.

The big guns were out in force, with the 'dream team' of John Size and Douglas Whyte landing a double, including the Chief Executive's Cup with Enthused. But even they had to take the second row as local boy Danny Shum Chap-shing made a massive opening-day statement with his three-timer.

The mechanics of the actual racing, from a purist's point of view, were a delight. The Sha Tin track could not have played much fairer, with winners coming from in front, handy or back, as well as inside or wide.

The riding and the standard of competition was excellent, though nothing less than you'd expect from a riding roster claiming legitimate stars such as Douglas Whyte, Brett Prebble, Darren Beadman, Felix Coetzee, Oliver Doleuze and Eric Saint-Martin. Add Howard Cheng Yue-tin to that list, too, because he doesn't have to play second fiddle to anyone these days.

The fields were full, betting was wide on most races and turnover was strong, sustaining a small increase to just on HK$828 million year on year. More than 51,000 turned up, the best modern opening-day figure if you ignore last year's whopping 63,000 when the 10th anniversary of the handover was celebrated.

On a personal note, it was a thrill to see Saint-Martin come back in such sparkling form. This is the man who many rival jockeys claim is the best they have ridden against, and that wrap alone sets him apart from the pack.

Saint-Martin left at the end of last season under a cloud, or at the very least a menacing dark umbrella. He had a quiet season by his high standards and his career here was in the balance after he sustained a third improper riding charge.

To his credit, Saint-Martin came roaring back, with a freshly starched attitude and his timing as precise as ever. When Saint-Martin is in this vein, there may be some as good but none better.

While the Jockey Club is keen to position itself as a sporting and entertainment organisation, the reality is that gambling makes this game go around and, on the evidence of one meeting, things are in sound shape despite the financial woes of the greater world.

Many horse players take a softly-softly approach for a month of so, allowing the horses to have one or two runs before they part with their cash. So the HK$82.7 million per race average was about right, predictably short of the dizzying HK$114 million per race that was taken on the final day of last season, at Happy Valley on July 3.

The new-look place dividend has put an end to the days where punters' rightful dividends on placed horses at longer odds were trimmed in the interests of making more of the betting customers happy. Yes, Hong Kong racing stands alone as the world's number one racing-wagering product. If the Home Affairs Bureau really understood that, the iniquitous double-tax formula for international bets would have been eliminated long ago in the name of fairness, and bigger business.

But you have to understand, a fish cannot see water ...



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