On the Rails
with Alan Aitken
Where was Samuel L. Jackson when we needed him on Saturday? And why did turnovernoia strike at Sha Tin?
The Jockey Club's version of Steve Irwin (sans stingray) managed to catch a python, which was doubtless minding its own business, perhaps catching a few rays of sun, near the tying up stalls on the members' car park side of the racecourse.
Since the horses have to walk out to the track past there, he had to go, though he was not a poisonous snake, nor a real danger to anyone.
We hear that the club's on-air commentators were then warned not to mention the snake - for fear of it affecting betting turnover.
English commentator Brett Davis was apparently out of the loop, didn't get that particular memo and threw out a comment on the snake that was quickly stepped on by his fellow commentators.
Now, we don't claim to be scholars of Chinese mythology but, from a quick Googling or Yahooing or two, the best we can find is that Chinese mythology is pretty much ambiguous about where the snake lies. There seem to be as many stories about good snakes as about evil ones.
Perhaps the panic was from the Christian section of the club, concerned about temptation and so on. Come to think of it, we haven't seen any apples at the track lately either. Or maybe it was just another bizarre reaction, the kind of thing that has become gradually more prevalent at the club in recent seasons.
Whether it is an odds drop, public or media criticism of officials, riding tactics or reversals of form, everything is now regarded as having a hair trigger, with the barrel facing squarely at betting numbers.
You can hardly walk your dog without it being considered in the light of how it affects betting. It's the Butterfly Effect, but with only one ending.
We have a mental picture of Punter Wong standing in the betting shop, ready to place his next bet, when the news comes over the airwaves that a snake was caught on the course. He curses, he spits (somehow avoiding a HK$1,500 fine), he throws his ticket to the ground with a shout: 'No way. Deal me out if there are snakes at the track.' (Clarification: that is, apart from the usual snakes at the track - the two-legged ones.)
In betting shops all over Hong Kong this scene might have been replayed a thousand times, computers slammed shut, phones hung up mid-wager. It might have been a disaster. Or just a figment of someone's imagination.
And this season to date has been anything but a disaster in terms of turnover. So it's like that joke where a horse walks into a bar - why the long face?
With small fields and largely lousy weather, it would have been no surprise to see betting figures taking a mild early hit, but they haven't. Even on that horrible, messy, wet day, turnover was up.
And the reason may well be that, as many a casual punter has noted aloud, the market has its eye in and race to race reinvestments must be booming. The 'God of Lamp' - as the lit-up tote shorteners were described last season by one Chinese language commentator - has been killing them and so has the public generally.
Punters finished last season in good shape - with 79 of the last 100 races of 2009-10 won by horses paying HK$110 or less. Now that's a solid statistic over time, with those horses accounting for 76-77 per cent of winners. Not for 13 years and well over 8,000 races has it been above 79 per cent or below 75 per cent over a season.
So the end of last season left punters in a good frame of mind to begin again and the results have done the rest.
So far the 46 winners have produced only a handful of what might be termed surprises, with winners at HK$110 or less arriving at a rate of some 86 per cent. Serious surprises have been very few, indeed.
Have punters improved their skills at identifying the winners yet again, or are have they thrown the form guide to the wind and hitched their wagon to the God Of Lamp?
The writing was on the wall when the first six races this season were won by heavily bet commodities and the day's 'rough' results were Wine Win at 12-1 and Fionn's Dragon at 8-1. And the wave hasn't stopped, with strong betting moves accompanying most of the winners since.
Part of that, we suspect, has been to do with the smaller fields. In small fields, the map makers tend to get it right more often and most of the strongest moves have been reserved for horses which 'mapped up' to get the ideal circumstances.
Doubtless the solo leaders and runners receiving every favour will continue to win plenty of races, it's a fundamental of the game, but with those percentages running so high, one has to think there's a reckoning on its way.
Sooner or later, assuming there has not been a total paradigm shift in how many winning favourites to expect, the other side of the equation kicks in, Gaussian style, to bring that 86 per cent back to 76 and that means outsiders.
Or perhaps, we shouldn't mention that. It might hurt turnover. Hiss.