'Tis the season to be wary, says Hong Kong Jockey Club
Chief executive Engelbrecht-Bresges looks forward to an exciting new term but remains cautious about potential growth in turnover
An unexpected boom in 2012-13 hasn't tempted Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges to step up with any bullish predictions for the new term, which starts next Sunday.
Engelbrecht-Bresges surprised 12 months ago, coming off a seven per cent increase the previous season, with a conservative hope of "a two to three per cent turnover increase". That was blown out of the water, as the club realised a nine per cent jump to a new record of almost HK$94 billion in handle. Despite commingling of overseas bets coming on board and a graph trending north-east anyway, the German is sticking with low expectations.
"I was happy to be wrong and I will be happy to be wrong to the upside again, but I'm staying conservative," he smiled yesterday. "We still have the slowdown in China, uncertainty in the economy and, while the outlook is slightly better than in 2012, I'm thinking of a three to three-and-a-half per cent increase."
As much as anything else, Engelbrecht-Bresges is mindful of the strides the club has made since the 2006 tax restructuring.
"If you look at where we've come from, a rise from HK$60 billion to HK$94 billion in seven years, with our marketing strategy our customer base has grown 30 per cent in the last five years to 1.5 million - I don't think there would be another racing organisation in the world growing its customer base like that and it is not easy to sustain," he said.
A 'soft opening' for commingling, a very low-key start for the single-pool wagering concept and delays and question marks with the Trakus timing system have weakened expectations for some of the season's expected highlights.
There are no new advances expected with the Longines Hong Kong International Races in December but they continue to build in terms of recognition and prestige.
"We were very happy about our first HKIR with Longines' sponsorship and so was Longines. We are looking at ways we can both get more out of our partnership, but at this stage there are no major changes for 2013," Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
"But I am optimistic about another great HKIR - I spoke to Freddie Head in France and he is very keen to bring Moonlight Cloud, which would really be a marquee horse to have. I also spoke to some major European owners and breeders and I think people are seeing HKIR now as a real positive for a horse's breeding career - they know we have a very level playing field and that is appealing. And HKIR is the only meeting with four events on the official list of the world's top 50 races, a great achievement."
The club's master plan of refurbishment and investment in its infrastructure and facilities enters phase three after four years and HK$3.5 billion spent in upgrades to Happy Valley and Sha Tin.
"In the last two months we have completed another HK$700 million of work and we have some tremendous upgrades to older venues as well as new areas in both members' and public areas," Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
"Those new facilities at Sha Tin address some members' issues and give us another fantastic venue for owners. But our main focus in the plan this season will be Happy Valley in mid-2014. It has to shut for several months while the government does some work ... we'll take that opportunity to work on our facilities."
Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, hosts the China Equine Cultural Festival race meeting on September 21, then, in November, Chengdu is scheduled to host another non-betting meeting with the backing of Dubai's Sheik Mohammed, but Engelbrecht-Bresges was donning his conservative hat again as those cities join Wuhan and others as one-off exhibitions.
"It is interesting to see innovation in racing, but it is more difficult to implement development of the sport than talk about it, especially in China," he said. "Holding a race meeting is one thing; it is entirely another, a giant leap, to take that to a sustainable business model."
A more significant gathering takes place in Hong Kong in May, the 35th Asian Racing Conference with "over 1,000 delegates" engaged in strategic discussions.
"This is a significant opportunity to demonstrate Hong Kong's position as a world leader and one of the major points is going to be how Asian jurisdictions view anabolic steroids and drugs in general - big issues that are not going away," Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
"But for now, I'm really looking forward to our season opening. New trainers, new jockeys and I am optimistic about our horses - I think we have a lot of potential in our stars and young horses. And I'm looking forward to the hustle and bustle of racedays here - I've been racing in Europe lately and there you don't get the same exciting atmosphere as in Hong Kong."
10 TO FOLLOW
Last season's "SCMP stable" was again notable for its mix of victories and some disappointments, with the highlight among the 13 wins notched being It Has To Be You winning the Group One Classic Cup at 125-1. This year's collection by Alan Aitken has a couple of the more obvious up-and-comers, along with some horses which might not make it to the top but will pay their way.
DESIGNS ON ROME (P270) Trainer John Moore. Rating 105. No prizes for this one, whose form was perfect and bettered by only a serious horse in All You Wish first-up, then won a Class One feature second start. Will stay 2,000m, already rated higher than any runner in the 2013 Derby and would be favourite if the Derby was next week. Expect him to be one of the horses to beat when it is run.
BOBO DRAGON (P147) Trainer Manfred Man Ka-leung. Rating 92. Has similarities with stablemate Eagle Regiment, who we nominated in Class Three as a future Group One horse. Turning four, Eagle Regiment had six starts for three wins, three seconds and Bobo Dragon's six runs have brought the same, with a difference. Unlike Eagle Regiment, a one-trick pony up the straight, Bobo Dragon's talent around the bends should ensure he has more chances to get where he's going.
ABLE FRIEND (P303) Trainer John Moore. Rating 83. As good as any debutant last season in a Class Three win over 1,200m when he didn't appear fully trained up. He is going to the top grades and is out of a mare who could stay 2,000m in black-type company so he is another for the Derby picture.
KHAYA (P289) Trainer John Size. Rating 60. Not exactly a punters' pin-up after five runs for one win last season when hard in market each time and favourite in three, but didn't do a lot wrong. Won nicely when stepped to 1,800m last run when in front for 400m and will stay further. Could surprise by getting to Derby level but will pay his way in any event.
YAT DING WIN (N337) Trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai. Rating 52. Eventful first campaign when knocked down on debut, bolted up second start but later disqualified for a zilpaterol positive, then a "blood-in-trachea" flop third run. Crucially, the handicapper took back the 12-point penalty for winning, so he's back where he started but is clearly much better than a 52-rater.
BERLINSKI (P014) Trainer David Hall. Rating 69. Didn't look the finished article as a three-year-old but still managed two wins from five starts. Looks to have some scope to go further up the ratings as a stronger horse this season.
SUPER LIFELINE (P158) Trainer Tony Millard. Rating 75. The shock winner of last season at over 170-1 in impressive debut, but could follow a pattern seen through history by debutants who win like that unexpectedly - they often turn out to be very talented.
AMAZING TREASURE (P338) Trainer Danny Shum Chap-shing. Rating 51. Failed on debut when wide and not ready but had shown ability in trials and produced it second start at Happy Valley, making up huge ground for fourth. From a talented New Zealand family and looks to have plenty of upside.
PLEASURE GAINS (P246) Trainer Manfred Man Ka-leung. Rating 72. Did enough in five runs last season to suggest there is more to come, putting together good times in a Class Four maiden win then didn't appear to handle soft ground last time but still won. Should get 1,800m and a full brother has won up to 2,400m in UK and Bahrain.
LUGER (P255) Trainer John Size. Rating 58. Looked the griffin to follow when a booming debut second to very smart Triumphant Jewel, coming down the centre part of the straight course, followed by a solid 1,400m win days later. Has a bright future and not been overtaxed at the handicaps this mark.