HK beats the odds to overcome handicaps

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong's profile as a racing jurisdiction with no grazing land, no breeding industry and a horse population capped at about 1,200 animals should be sufficient handicap to render it incapable of measuring up to major racing nations in either hemisphere.

But negative perspectives never really meant much to the late Jockey Club chairman, Alan Li Fook-sum, who took a small international dream and spun an enormous one, laying down not just a foundation but a programme of encouragement that would quickly drag Hong Kong into racing's premier league.

That was December 1998. Now, just over 10 years down the track, Hong Kong has been highly decorated on the international arena many times over.

At one stage over the past year, Hong Kong was credited as having three of the top 10 thoroughbreds on the planet, an incredible statistic.

Just how do you grow the quality of your racehorses to the extent that you have 30 per cent of the world's best despite owning less than 1 per cent of all thoroughbreds?

Hong Kong's breakthrough horse, in terms of world recognition, was a sprinter - Fairy King Prawn who was the hero in the 1999 Hong Kong Sprint.

The following year, however, Fairy King Prawn was stretched out to 1,600m and that's where he really won acclaim, becoming the first Hong Kong-trained horse to land a Group One race on foreign soil. The benchmark moment came in the Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo in June 2000.

The next big event that telegraphed Hong Kong's arrival as a world power was the international meeting of December 2002, when the Jockey Club played host to many of the best horses in the world, but three of the four races fell to locals - All Thrills Too (HK Sprint), Olympic Express (HK Mile) and Precision (HK Cup).

Two weeks later, on December 26, came the debut performance of a sprinter who would change the face of Hong Kong racing.

Silent Witness exploded onto the scene and laughed at the huge swipes the handicapper took at him after each arrogant win.

He arrived in Group company at start No5, and the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint was his at start No8. Silent Witness became not just Hong Kong's, but the world's champion sprinter for 2003, 2004 and 2005.

He won each one of his first 17 starts and was beaten by a mere nose when he stepped to a mile for the first time in a bid to make it No18. He ultimately won his own Group One on foreign soil in the Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama in October 2005.

Fairy King Prawn was Horse of the Year twice (2000 and 2001), a feat later replicated by Silent Witness (2004 and 2005).

While there may never be another Silent Witness, Hong Kong did not have to wait long for some big-time recognition for its sprinters. An ageing Silent Witness turned up for a third attempt at the Hong Kong Sprint in 2006, but David Hall's Absolute Champion simply blew him away, rocketing away to a 4?length victory in course record time.

Then came Sacred Kingdom. There was a hint of Silent Witness about the way he trounced the best in the 2007 Hong Kong Sprint and, at that stage of his career, defeat had only visited him once.

That signature win also gave Sacred Kingdom the 'world champion' tag and the number used to profile him was the same given to Silent Witness four years earlier - an international rating of 123.

The following spring, Sacred Kingdom fought off Absolute Champion in a 'world title bout' in the Chairman's Sprint Prize (1,200m) at Sha Tin. Although Absolute Champion died the following May and Sacred Kingdom succumbed to injury, it was a performance that lasted for the entire year in the minds of the global handicapping panel, and Sacred Kingdom was given the global honour for a second time.

This year, in theory, Hong Kong's sprinters are down in quality on previous seasons. But it still managed to land the one-two in the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint in December, with Inspiration and Green Birdie.

Sacred Kingdom has returned to win twice late this term and, at last glance, the handicappers had him on a mark of 122 after he had set new course record figures in Singapore's KrisFlyer International Sprint. While Sacred Kingdom will probably have to answer to the champion middle-distance and staying star Viva Pataca when Horse of the Year honours are announced on Wednesday, he'll still be the measuring stick for the sprinters, both domestically and internationally.