The colourful case of racing’s ‘Benjamin Button’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 1:05pm

The first fortnight of the season has been a dark time for the rank and file punters – with only three favourites saluting in the 36 races so far – but at least a rare Andy Leung Ting-wah win injected some colour into proceedings, quite literally, on Wednesday night at the Valley.

Leung, whose outrageous outfits at times make him look like a Chinese version of Little Richard (a resemblance not helped by what appears to be a recent perm), was sartorially subdued by his standards: navy blue shirt, red tie and cherry-red shoes.

In the past, the 65-year-old, sorry 64-year-old, has favoured garish red or blindingly bright yellow blazers, snakeskin shoes and not-so-subtle Native American-inspired necklaces.

He isn’t alone in being a flashy or unique dresser: uber-cool jockey Olivier Doleuze makes the short walk from the Sha Tin jockeys’ room to his on-track apartment look like a Milan catwalk in his tightly tailored, retro-chic outfits, and trainer John Moore has safari suits in three different colours – the traditional khaki, as will as navy blue and army green.

But there is a far deeper reason than fashion for Leung’s flamboyance and seemingly random colour code: feng shui and astrology.

Leung, with a Gemini star sign and born in a year of the rat, hires a feng shui expert to advise him on what colours he should wear each race day to maximise energy and good fortune.

What probably helped a bit more on Wednesday was Leung’s winner, Polygold, had dropped so low in grade (21 ratings points) he was on the brink of being “voted off the island” in the off-season (horses rated below 20 at the end of each term are sent to Beas River Riding School to find another career). He carried the lowest weight in the worst race imaginable.

Good luck, pardon the pun, to Leung though, in what – rather miraculously – will be his final season of training. Approaching the compulsory retirement age of 65, officials had already taken applications for Leung’s replacement on the roster last season, when his last-ditch attempt to officially change the date of birth on his ID card was successful. Anyone who has queued at the Immigration Department understands what an impressive achievement this is – he deserves another 12 months of training just for patience, persistence and powers of persuasion.

We’ve had a lot of fun at Andy’s expense in the past, but he revealed on Wednesday the reason why his birth date was wrong in the first place, and it gave an insight into the remarkable path some of Hong Kong’s trainers and jockeys have taken to be where they are. Even if Leung finishes last in the championship, credit to him for even being a trainer.  As one of six children growing up in post-second-world-war Kowloon – a time of widespread poverty, high unemployment and civil unrest – Leung said he simply had to lie about his age to get a summer job on an abysmal wage.

The slew of favourites getting beaten won’t send Hong Kong back into economic ruin, but it’s not helping the mood of on-course punters – or that of already cantankerous cabbies. Even some of the winning horses on Wednesday seemed to be sensing the tension – foul-tempered Eastern Empire tried to kick anything within hoof shot in the parade ring, and Caspar Fownes labelled Easy To Rich “an absolute lunatic” with severe mental problems after his 50-1 victory.

Short-priced runners seem to take on a mythical place in betting markets, “odds-on” reads “unbeatable” to an overly suspicious and superstitious public, who believe the only thing between them and an easy collect is jockey error or subterfuge – witness the rowdy opening-day protest as Douglas Whyte returned to scale on Amber Sky after he was rolled as a  5-1 on hot pot.

Good news is, with all of these outsiders getting up, it should all turn around soon and we’ll get a run of “shorties” filling the pockets of favourite backers, right? But if a change in luck is all that’s required, maybe we’ll see the Sha Tin faithful taking some fashion cues from Andy and looking a little more colourful on Sunday.