Game of charades for local press pack at Sha Tin
At Sha Tin for the National Day meeting for Tuesday there was bumping of elbows, and even some push and shove, as competitiveness got the better of some. Tempers were frayed as fancied runners were beaten, and terse words were spoken among those normally considered friends. And that was just in the press room.
The South China Morning Post’s two-man team at the track (soon to be three with the addition of Andrew Hawkins - @AndrewNJHawkins - already our leading tipster) - is the only English-language media covering Hong Kong racing on a full-time basis.
The western contingent is in the vast minority and the SCMP Racing Post is outnumbered by Chinese media, including a voracious local press pack of beat reporters chasing a scoop. Two big local daily players, Apple Daily and Oriental Daily News, lead more than 15 other local publications, joined by myriad magazines and expert tipster-type raceday papers.
The blanket coverage ensures that each raceday and trackwork morning there are at least a dozen reporters on the ground vying to break a story. And then there’s the insane influx of entertainment reporters that storm the Sha Tin fortress each time Canto-pop star Aaron Kwok Fu-sing comes to the races.
There are three press rooms for local journos at Sha Tin; up on the eighth floor is the air-conditioned comfort and spectacular view set aside for those who have moved beyond trying to track down Gary Ng Ting-keung after a Class Five winner.
I guess that is where some of the anonymous columnists whose bylines appear in the local press from time-to-time probably reside too; Dr Gambling and Racecourse Godfather sitting high above the masses sharing their wisdom.
Downstairs, crammed into what looks and feels like a disused hothouse or storage shed for Sha Tin track staff are the foot soldiers - notepads in hand, scrapping for quotes and, for some, fitting in a spot of punting to pass the time.
One of the first, and funniest, questions one receives when stating “racing journalist” as occupation is “are you allowed to bet?” Racing press rooms must be one the only office space in the world with full betting facilities installed.
It is losing bets that cause the most anguish at Sha Tin - tantrums and launched projectiles are commonplace - but winning bets create nearly as much commotion. This is a perfect excuse to show a clip we shot of Sing Pao reporter Benny Cheung losing it in Macau after a win by Zac Purton in a Group One last year.
As tense as things can get in pursuit of a yarn, or a winner, there is a spirit of co-operation among the reporters - but also a language barrier. The Cantonese-speaking locals are often called in for translation help. Assistance is usually required after the English press (me) wait faithfully through five minutes of media darling Dennis Yip Chor-hong regaling his local audience. After delivering some gold in Cantonese, the Yipster offers an obligatory “good horse, good jockey” quote in English.
When it comes to translations, some terms are easier to turn into English than others, and interviews with trainers with less-than-average English can become a game of horse-racing charades: Danny Shum Chap-shing demonstrates a horse “over-racing” with a bicep curl, clinched fist and gritted teeth.
But that’s got nothing on Benny Cheung’s epic non-verbal recreations of an exercise induced pulmonary haemorrhage or a heart irregularity when asked, “what happened to that beaten favourite?”
There is no other way to demonstrate that a horse has bled from both nostrils than to do it energetically. Cheung throws himself into helpful translations so enthusiastically that you almost believe he has a case of the dreaded thumps and requires urgent veterinary assistance.
Of course the local media landscape changed forever at the start of this season when Andy Leung Ting-wah came good on a threat and began writing for HK Racing Booklet. We’re still coming to terms with the early columns, and organising an interpretive dance recreation of what he is trying to say. Once there’s a consensus on what it is Andy is stating in his columns, we will bring you the translation - it just might take a while.