Italian showman Umberto Rispoli exclaimed on Sunday, “It is the people who give me the power”, after celebrating victories like the Azzurri winning the World Cup – and that was with only 20,400 people at Sha Tin. So let’s hope Rispoli can salute on Sunday when there could be more than 70,000 fans, including Hollywood legends Kate Winslet and Omar Sharif, but sadly no Queen.
Rispoli is a true elite athlete – a lot more than just a kid small enough to make the weight, with the requisite balance to hang on. Despite his top-notch skills, when he rides in his homeland and all across Europe he is starved of the public adulation that top competitors crave and feed off. On all but the biggest days, racetracks around the world have become soulless wastelands.
Sunday’s meeting, predominantly held on a heavily biased all-weather track, was the personification of an “industry” meeting. It was just a go-between, keeping the turnover machine grinding away and getting those unsightly Class Five fixtures out of the way before this week’s big bash. It’s a bit like an Olympic host city moving the homeless out of sight for a couple of weeks.
For those of us who live racing week-in and week-out, these fixtures become a drag, so it was refreshing to hear a different perspective from Umberto and witness his exuberant post-race reactions. “I love coming to a track with people and hearing them shout your name. In my country, no one comes to the track,” he said.
Unfortunately, Rispoli doesn’t have a ride in any of the main events on Sunday – you’d back him to win on anything at the moment – but the big crowd will still have him rising to the occasion on the support card.
It’s the “who’s who” in the crowd that the vociferous local paparazzi will be hunting with silly oversized microphones.
Winslet is an ambassador for Longines, and the word is she will be on course and doing that awkward walk watch models walk, holding her arm in the air in front of her to show off the title sponsor’s wares. And maybe she can stand on the front corner of the Sha Tin grandstand in true Titanic style to watch a race.
The name Omar Sharif might only elicit some vague recognition for those under 40, but the octogenarian was a great leading man of the 1960s and will reportedly be in town to watch his horse, Don Bosco, run in the Mile. There’s no truth to the rumour Sharif will ride Don Bosco on to the track wearing his Lawrence of Arabia gear.
The real star of the show, had she made the trip, would have been Queen Lizzie – with Carlton House carrying the royal family’s hopes in the Cup. She could have at least sent grandson Harry down for a look at how the old colony is doing since the handover – and there are a few establishments in Lockhart Road where the wild child of the family would have felt right at home.
Most of the punters yesterday couldn’t care less about celebrities, and international Group One races don’t matter much to them either. For all of the club’s marketing speak, citing “customer segmentation” as the motivation behind their master plan – the plan that brought us a mass of glass-covered private boxes and pot plants in prominent positions – the vast majority of paying customers brave the elements in the massive public section at the other end of the Sha Tin straight. They care as much about a Class Two as they do about the Hong Kong Vase.
This hardened lot will be cheering for their heroes in the big races, but the biggest cheer is saved for a popular winner – and if he is odds-on and does the right thing, it won’t matter if he is trained in the New Territories or New Caledonia.
One aspect this year’s international caravan brings to town is a couple of “fairytale horses” – both in the Cup – Alcopop and Saonois. There are no “battlers” in Hong Kong racing’s ownership ranks – if you want proof, head down to the International Sale on Saturday at Sha Tin as nouveau-rich mainlanders queue up to pay HK$5 million-plus for an unraced and untested three-year-old gelding – albeit a well-bred and nice-looking one.
Alcopop is a “home bred” trained by Jake Stephens, a former professional windsurfer and polo player, who trains a handful of horses is rural South Australia. Saonois is the classic “claimer came good”, a bargain buy for a French baker and prepared by another small-time trainer, Jean-Pierre Gauvin, out of his provincial base.
Stephens and Gauvin will find some kindred sprits down near the Silent Witness statue beyond the furlong pole. That’s where the customer “segment” the club should never forget about stand shoulder to shoulder, pouring over their weathered form guides. They’re the blokes putting their last $50 on an even-money favourite in the get-out stakes, hoping to turn it into enough for the MTR ride home and a decent meal.
And they’ll be the fans Rispoli will be riding for on Sunday.