On the Rails

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 June, 2010, 12:00am

The achievements of Entrapment and Douglas Whyte aside, the sound of chickens coming home to roost was the prevailing memory of Sunday's racing and the Juvenile Sprint Trophy.

Overall, the 78th meeting was a reminder of why the season used to end at that point with the heavy rain, carved-up track and miserable atmosphere contributing to a whopping HK$130 million hit for the Jockey Club in terms of turnover. If betting is the reason for racing's further incursions into July, it will be of interest to see if punters respond more positively in the remaining fixtures that promise every chance of more of the same from the Weather Gods who care little about who they affect.

The two features totalled only 10 runners - usually considered a poor field for one race. And the Juvenile Sprint itself, a four-horse field, bolstered only by Almond Lee's two maidens as late entries, had a favourite at 1-10 and turnover of HK$19 million. And a whole lot of clucking.

We may never know if Entrapment would have even had his chance at a seventh win had Lee not come to the party and rolled the dice on rehandicapping - two runners usually means scrapping the race.

That chief handicapper Nigel Gray was happy to call it 'intriguing' betrays a strictly western hemisphere, nonsense view of the race. Uncompetitive and pointless would have been a better description and punters voted with their pockets.

We can only assume that a particularly kind rehandicap of Danewin Tiger - up three points for being beaten three-quarters of a length by a horse rated 53 points higher than him and ridden hard to the line - was due the trainer for his assistance in even staging the race. Should we see that as the pre-race fears of trainers being unfounded or merely as a demonstration that they could have been?

There are limits to how much the beaten runners in this situation can be raised, but it isn't three points, so Lee has managed to get away with HK$184,000 in prize money for Danewin Tiger and no more penalty than he might have got for running second in a Class Four (stake money HK$137,500). His other runner, Just Good, grabbed HK$96,000 in stakes and doesn't even have a rating which can be raised. Good luck to him and his owners and too bad he didn't have a third horse to take the HK$56,000 for fifth place, for free.

But the race programming officials shouldn't be too proud of the show they organised.

The decision had, apparently, already been taken to scrap the Juvenile Sprint - a race which has generally yielded small but not pitiful fields and been won by some very decent horses, including Good Ba Ba.

Now there's talk of a similar style of race for November, but that doesn't address the problem. There was once a race like this for three-year-olds in November - it was the original Chairman's Trophy - but it was tossed out and turned into an open race later in the season after only seven turned up in 1999.

Had the race been staged last November, the problem would still have been sitting there. Just off the top of our memory, White Jade was a three-year-old with a rating of 95 around that time this season when he won the Panasonic Cup. He could have been the one scaring off the opposition instead.

The fault in all this is in the simple conditions of the race - which made no attempt to have a competitive contest in the event of highly rated runners appearing - and in the fact of the potential for serious rating penalties.

Without the penalty fears, we might have seen the likes of London China Town or Lucky Nine turning up to make it more competitive on the weekend, especially if the conditions of the race had presented more hope in the way of higher penalties for the high-raters and some more help with allowances for the lesser-performed.

Racing isn't about match races, it's about something more competitive to bet on. Maybe match races and paltry, intriguing fields are a highlight in other parts of the world - parts of the world like the UK or the US where racing is begging for handouts or eating itself to stay alive - but that isn't Hong Kong and it isn't part of the reason this jurisdiction has done so well and been able to drag itself up to a good standard.

Gray himself noted there are few races under set weight terms in this jurisdiction, and maybe the right course is to acknowledge that, tweak the conditions and abolish handicap rating penalties out of those races to make them more attractive to those up-and-comers who want to chance their hand.