The average punter couldn’t catch a break on opening day, not even on the free “scratch-and-win” cards handed out at entrances to the course – they weren’t “scratching”, the prize code was unable to be revealed on most of them – and those following Douglas Whyte’s slew of favourites were scratching more than their heads.
After all of the pre-season ceremonies, gong striking of opening day and promises of prosperity before race one, the new term started with Linked Win sinking the Durban Demon’s first favourite of the day, My Memory. Nothing stuns a Hong Kong racetrack into silence more than an Almond Lee winner, no-one sees them coming, not even the trainer himself. They’re racing’s equivalent of a roulette double-zero – “house wins” and create many a Six-Up and Triple Trio jackpot.
We like Almond a lot, but it’s been a standing joke among some in the press that he attributes his every success to luck. But this time there was nothing lucky about the Class Five win, according to the trainer – “Not lucky at all. Gate one and box seat,” he said. So if luck was even absent in victory for Almond, what chance did the rest of us have?
Maybe it was the feng shui of the new grandstand development causing the bad juju. The owner-orientated set-up seems to have given preference to pot plants over patrons and left some trainers without their “lucky” spots, after they found the old trainer’s stand had disappeared to make way for some spectacular looking, but bizarrely placed flora.
Hong Kong punters are creatures of habit – on-course fisticuffs are nearly always attributed to someone’s lucky seat being stolen – and on Saturday more than one trainer was left looking lost as they searched for a new place to stand.
While the 60,000-plus crowd may have been subdued to start with, soon they had something to scream about as Whyte’s day went from bad to worse – the nadir being the spectacular, bubble-bursting failure of sprinter Amber Sky. Five Whyte-ridden favourites went under, not to mention that he also started odds-on in the Jockey Challenge.
Glory Of India (2.8), Arrived Ahead (2.6), Gorgeous Life (2.3) made it four-from-four favourites getting beat for Whyte to start the day, before Amber Sky – after having the blowtorch applied by the horse’s former rider, Andreas Suborics on outsider Nordic One – capitulated at 5-to-1 on in the seventh.
Whyte’s best tactical effort of the day was to avoid the abuse of the always colourful characters in the parade ring, all keen to vent their frustrations and already full of angst after the scratch-and-win debacle (the Sha Tin faithful love free stuff more than air-conditioning in July, and when a scratch-and-win card is faulty, there’s hell to pay).
All of Whyte’s mounts went riderless past the baying mob in the ring late in the day, the 12-time premiership winner showing all of his experience to be legged on as his horse’s exited the mounting yard.
At least Scarlet Camellia, with a climbing action so extravagant trainer Danny Shum Chap-shing says “he looks like he is playing mahjong”, was fancied as second favourite, giving the poor old punters something to come back and play with on Wednesday.
There’s no such thing as a protected species in Hong Kong and unbeaten streaks don’t come easy. At start four Amber Sky looked bomb-proof, the Six-Up becoming a Five-Up. But he was straight in with older horses, against opposition jockeys with nothing to lose, all keen to find a chink in the hot-pot’s armour. Reputations count for nothing and there’s nowhere to hide. It shows just how remarkable Silent Witness was, or even more recently, Entrapment, to produce their unbeaten streaks. The bubble burst in a big way for Amber Sky and I, for one, got sucked in big time, making it my best bet of the day at 1.2 and copping it big time (rightly so), from colleagues.