Horse of the Year puts spotlight on HK mounts
The Horse of the Year awards have mirrored racing's progress over three decades, with their share of criticism, tracking a rise in quality in a maturing local scene made more complex by globalisation.
The world was simpler when Silver Lining won the first Horse of the Year, organised by the Association of Hong Kong Racing Journalists, on the basis of his 1978 Champions & Chater Cup victory when serious races were few.
Silver Lining retained the title the following year, but was controversially denied the 1980 title when Top Gain's Champions & Chater Cup was felt superior to Silver Lining's win in the newer Hong Kong Gold Cup.
That decision prevented a four-year sweep by Silver Lining, who was back on top in 1981, and no horse since has looked like winning four times.
As more top-grade races were added, the decision-making process became harder. A Derby or victory in the Triple Crown events of Stewards' Cup, Gold Cup or Champions & Chater Cup went a long way to anointing the winner, but there were still seasons dogged by controversy.
Along the way, some champions brought no dispute. Co-Tack's 10 straight wins during 1983 and 1984 made him Horse of the Year in two seasons, and River Verdon's titles in 1991, 1992 and 1994 were straightforward, though his eclipse by Derby winner Helene Star in 1993 raised eyebrows.
The 1990s brought international racing into the equation, but it meant little in the early years as foreign horses dominated those races, and the awards held a distinct bias to domestic form. When both Motivation and Winning Partners won against foreign visitors, that wasn't enough to oust River Verdon as Horse of the Year. It was a vote which must have had resonance years later for Motivation's trainer, John Moore.
But the 1990s was the decade of Ivan Allan. The former Singapore dominator moved to Sha Tin and quickly became the major force in the biggest events. He won six straight Horse of the Year titles with five different horses from 1996 to 2001. The 1999 victory by Indigenous was also notable as the first year the Jockey Club took over the running of the awards.
Since the turn of the century, Hong Kong horses have tackled international assignments with increasingly positive results, but that only muddied the waters.
One December Sunday in 2002, three locals won international Group Ones at Sha Tin - Precision, Olympic Express and All Thrills Too - yet none was able to win Horse of the Year, despite Precision and Olympic Express adding domestic Group Ones after. The honour went to Grand Delight, who dominated domestic sprints until thrashed by emerging Silent Witness late in the season.
Silent Witness became the world's champion sprinter and undisputed Horse of the Year twice .
Vengeance of Rain got the 2007 Horse of the Year award won US$5M Sheema Classic in Dubai .
The criteria for Horse of the Year constitutes an ongoing discussion which speaks volumes for how far Hong Kong's horses have come.
Horse of the year
2007-2008 Good Ba Ba, A Schutz
2006-2007 Vengeance of Rain, D Ferraris
2005-2006 Bullish Luck, Tony Cruz
2004-2005 Silent Witness, Tony Cruz
2003-2004 Silent Witness, Tony Cruz
2002-2003 Grand Delight, John Size
2001-2002 Electronic Unicorn, John Size
2000-2001 Fairy King Prawn, Ivan Allan
1999-2000 Fairy King Prawn, Ivan Allan
1998-1999 Indigenous, Ivan Allan