Dirt tracks, dark racecourses and dilated pupils

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 March, 2013, 1:07am

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“His pupils were dilated, he was blinking all the time and he lost his action ...” – it sounds like the morning after a good night out in Lan Kwai Fong to some, but that was trainer Sean Woods’ recollection of Free Judgement’s symptoms after his last start. The insinuation from Woods was that his horse had been “got at”, that Free Judgement was the victim of subterfuge and drugged by fence jumpers or evil insiders – and not the six-year-old had snuck out of Sha Tin’s Olympic stables for a good time in town with the boys.

Shady characters with sinister motives might seem the stuff of Dick Francis novels, but nighttime all-weather track meetings at Sha Tin seems to have a dark vibe about them – so maybe Woods was picking up on that and his imagination clicked into overdrive when he came up with the scandalous speculation.

Just like the rare daytime meetings at Happy Valley, which feel like someone turned on the lights in a nightclub, Sha Tin at night takes on a totally different atmosphere when the floodlights are switched on. On a Sunday it is buzzing with myriad high-end restaurants full of rich people showing off to guests, on a Wednesday it is down to the 15,000 core members of the punting fraternity – the only requirement for membership is a desire to bet on anything.

It’s hard to find a winner on a dirt track. Unpredictable biases trigger topsy-turvy changes in tactics, horses saved and set for events on their pet surface stage dramatic form reversals, all mixed in with a few slow ones trying to lose ratings points with a poor run on a surface they don’t handle.

The style of racing can become very American looking and with the relatively small amount of punters sprinkled throughout the spacious facilities, it does remind you of one of those seedy US-tracks depicted on TV. It’s a bit spooky, too many dark corners.

Sha Tin at night would make an ideal set if there were an Asian version of the short-lived mini series Luck, although Macau would have it covered by a good 10 lengths with its ramshackle charm and randomly spinning totalisator board.

All-weather is an ironic name for Sha Tin’s dirt circuit, at least from a racing perspective, because rain just makes the already tricky track go haywire. Any criticism of the course should be viewed from the perspective the main priority of the AWT is as a training surface for Sha Tin’s 1,600 or so horses.

Its secondary usage is racing and a way to save the two turf tracks from wear and tear in what has become an increasingly demanding schedule – keeping the turnover machine clicking. So the term all-weather is accurate, in that horses can train on it rain, hail or shine – even if it does become a bit messy at times. If the track were to be out of commission for even a matter of days it would be a disaster for the club. But more on bias and whether there should be racing on the dirt track another time – and more on Woodsy’s whinge now.

Why anyone would be trying to stop Free Judgement last start is anyone’s guess. He had finished runner-up on the all-weather in the previous start, but his turf form before that had been abysmal. He was drawn 14 against short-priced favourite and subsequent Hong Kong Derby winner Akeed Mofeed, punters gave him “none” and he was sent out a 54-1 unwanted outsider.

In short, there wasn’t much to gain from “nobbling” Free Judgement that day – he probably didn’t need stopping and no-one thought he could win anyway. If he were given an unwanted substance it would seem a waste of perfectly good poison.

Woods was right when he said a form turnaround on the all-weather was no surprise as Free Judgement clearly flies on the track. And good on Woods for generating some interest in an otherwise mediocre meeting.

But of course there is more to Woods’ gripes than simply a loose allegation of doping – there’s also an undercurrent of anger directed towards Kim Kelly and his stipendiary stewards’ panel. Regardless of the reasons why Free Judgement ran so badly in early March, Woods claims he has been unfairly treated by stewards – and the drug-testing regime of the club is over the top.

If Woods wanted to pick a fight, he will get one, and while he might get some temporary relief through venting in the media, there will only be one winner when he squares off with sheriff Kelly and his deputies at a hearing tonight.