What we love about HKIR week - and International Jockeys' Championship relationship counselling
What a week we have coming up. Overseas visitors make it a 24-hour per day party cycle for many, but there's plenty to love about what goes on at the races. So we don't have Ambitious Dragon and California Memory to defend what has become "fortress Sha Tin" in recent years, but there's still plenty to love about "international week".
WHO NEEDS RELATIONSHIP COUNSELLING WHEN YOU HAVE THE IJC?
The International Jockeys’ Championship isn’t just a chance for leading riders to showcase their skills and test themselves against other world-class competitors. It can be a joyous occasion where cultural bridges are built and long forgotten or even seriously damaged relationships can be healed.
The random draw of nine international visitors and three locally based riders always bears many gifts in the way of odd couples thrown together, and this year is no exception. Not everyone gets along at Sha Tin, which is no surprise given a couple of dozen super competitive jockeys and trainers live in a handful of apartment buildings on course. So it's always great when two that aren't getting along are paired up.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall when jockeys and trainers meet before the four legs of the IJC! Here’s the best of the match-ups. Clearly the Jockey Club's random draw computer has a sense of humour.
Horse: Speedy Sandy
Jockey: Douglas Whyte
Trainer: Tony Millard
As the kids would say - “Awkward!” Last time Millard and Whyte were on good terms, Ambitious Dragon was still horse of the year, and Whyte was his rider. But after the 2012 Champions Mile it all fell apart in spectacular and highly entertaining fashion.
Millard started the ball rolling after a disappointing fourth in the Group One by calling Whyte’s effort (cue thick South African accent, it sounds better): “A very disappointing ride for a top jockey.” Whyte, sensing he would never ride the horse again, hit back and won the verbal spar by knockout. “…it would be nice if he (Millard) watched the replay and had some horse sense to see what happened,” along with this beauty, “It's just sad that when some people are disappointed they need someone to blame. I am thankful that Ambitious Dragon's owner is an honourable man."
The two professionals may discuss tactics amicably on Wednesday at Happy Valley, but there won't be much idle chitchat before or after. Then again, the South Africans do have a bit of catching up to do, given Whyte hasn’t ridden for Millard since that fateful day in 2012.
Horse: Twin Turbo
Trainer: Me Tsui Yu-sak
Jockey: Suguru Hamanaka
A tantalising train wreck of Me Tsui's limited English and cryptic Cantonese instructions colliding with Hamanaka’s absolutely non-existent English. Expect even more awkward pauses than between Millard and Whyte. It’s going to take a good translator to get this right and Twin Turbo could end up galloping via Causeway Bay after Tsui's directions are delivered.
Horses: Rocket Let Win and Majestic Anthem
Trainer: Tony Cruz
Jockey: Zac Purton
Could this be a golden opportunity for the new golden boy and runaway jockeys' championship leader? Purton often mentions how he has achieved what he has without the support of leading trainers, and he has been delegated two rides for Cruz in the four races, the same as last year.
Who knows if Cruz and Purton get along, but it's obvious they don't have a professional relationship to speak of. Purton has ridden for Cruz just 22 times since arriving in Hong Kong six seasons ago, and the last time it was as a late injury replacement. But if the Australian got one of the Cruz runners home, could it open the door to one of the most prolific stables in town?
There are no real “rags to riches” tales in Hong Kong racing. Let’s face it: if you own a horse here, you are rich – and probably not just “I own a fancy car” rich, but more “I own factories that make fancy cars” rich. The Jockey Club is an exclusive club that requires sitting through some long waiting lists to apply, and then there is the pricy admission fees once you get to the front of the line. You have to be a member before you own a horse, and it costs plenty to buy one and a fair chunk of change to get it trained.
Some of the local trainers and jockeys have remarkable stories though and Keith Yeung Ming-lun mixing it with a host of legends in the IJC is certainly a special occasion. If rookie trainer Chris So Wai-yin can cause an upset with Time After Time in the Hong Kong Sprint it would be a remarkable achievement, and it would be one of the great stories if 10-year-old Joy And Fun was successful in that same race.
But on the horse front, there’s no bargain basement buys winning for their working class owners here, as is relatively common in other countries.
This week sees at least a couple of interesting “battlers” fighting against the odds. Gordon Lord Byron was a £2,000 pin-hook purchase by Irish sheep farmer Morgan Cahalan. Pin-hooking is buying a horse as a weanling, hoping it develops considerably, then re-selling at a profit as a yearling. Trouble is, Gordon Lord Byron didn’t grow and the Cahalans were stuck with him. He has now won more than HK$8.5 million in prizemoney and taken his “unlucky” owners and little-known trainer Tom Hogan on the ride of their lives.
Then there’s Simenon, purchased to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham – about as far from Sha Tin as one can get geographically and stylistically. He will run in the Hong Kong Vase.
CRAZY "OVERS" WITH OVERSEAS BOOKIES
One of the most eagerly awaited parts of international week for Hong Kong form students is the opening of fixed-odds markets on the four features by overseas bookmakers, where local bias and plain ignorance can create some juicy overlays - even if they won't take a serious bet. The three best quotes spotted during the week were all with one operator: 66-1 Go Baby Go and 25-1 Frederick Engels in the Hong Kong Sprint, and 25-1 Dunaden in the Vase. The odds didn't last long.
DIVERSITY OF MORNING TRACKWORK
Not only is Sha Tin trackwork during International Week one of the best places in the world to see some of the best racehorses up close in broad daylight, it’s a melting pot of training styles.
Nowhere is the contrasting approach of trainers highlighted better than from 8.30am each morning. A string of Europeans taking a slow and steady approach with long gallops could be passed by a trio of Japanese horses – all entered in different races - working together at race speed under the whip.
Not only do the Japanese work horses hard each day, but last year subsequent Hong Kong Sprint winner Lord Kanaloa even completed a fast gallop on race eve, a day when most horses get a leisurely stretch of the legs.
What makes trackwork even better, without being too biased, is the wonderful insight provided by SCMP Racing Post’s International Week trackwork expert Murray Bell. If you want to get more “racing smart”, his reports are required daily reading.