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The Alfonso is good for Hong Kong racing’s diversity; the same rich guys winning over and over again isn’t

A horse from Macau is going to be the first to test the Jockey Club’s newly opened up Group races and while he may be a rank outsider, it provides Sunday’s Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse with a spark

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 8:24pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2016, 9:14am

Random entries from Macau weren’t what Jockey Club officials had in mind when they opened the vast majority of Hong Kong’s lucrative Group races to all-comers, but the arrival of The Alfonso still brings a sorely needed “underdog X-Factor” to Sha Tin on Sunday.

Let’s not bore you with an explanation of why an “elevation to Part I of the Blue Book” allows an entry like The Alfonso, but just cut to why the entry is such a spark – even if Joe Lau’s horse goes around at massive odds in the Sa Sa Ladies Purse on Sunday.

In a word, diversity. That is what Hong Kong racing lacks at times, particularly in the big races, but is a touch of sameness and dangerous elitism seeping into the overall culture as well?

Trainers John Moore, John Size and Tony Cruz dominate the big races – the trio have won seven of the last eight Group races between them – and now some “super owners” seem to be taking advantage of ownership rule loopholes to build substantial teams of horses.

Big bonanza: Hong Kong racing gets a lift with promotion to Blue Book

Even if Hong Kong racing aspires to being a bit like Europe, in the way its races are recognised in sale catalogues at least, what should be avoided for the good of the sport is the top-heavy nature of horse ownership that plagues racing there, where a relative handful of wealthy stables battling it out on the big days.

The best result for an “everyday Joe” that owns a horse in Europe is selling a potential star to a Sheikh, or perhaps Hong Kong.

Even in Australian racing, where that racing parlance probably emanated from, the saying “there are only two places where men are equal, on the turf and under it,” seems to be slowly losing some of its romantic charm.

When billionaire owner Lloyd Williams won a record-breaking fifth Melbourne Cup on Tuesday there was an outpouring, at least from some sections of the painfully insular racing media, along the lines of “isn’t it great for racing? Especially given what Lloyd has put into racing.” Spare us, please.

Williams winning hardly pulled at the heartstrings did it? Williams has spent a lot of money, but he has plenty to spend, and does he, on a personal level at least, put anymore into racing than a devoted trainer, strapper or bush jockey battling to make ends meet? Before we get carried away we should add that The Alfonso isn’t exactly owned by a bunch of “battlers” either, with part-owner Dato Yap Kim-san also the part owner of Group One winner Sacred Falls and also Sacred Elixir, which could be Hong Kong-bound later this season.

Still, The Alfonso does add enough X-Factor when it comes to storylines, not just because he once survived a block of concrete falling on his head in the dilapidated facilities at Taipa, but simply by virtue of being from somewhere different than the same Sha Tin stables where his 13 rivals are trained.

Joe Lau hopes to restore Macau pride at Hong Kong interport with his horse The Alfonso

Then there is what makes The Alfonso a real underdog – that some Jockey Club officials look down their noses at Macau racing and would sooner do away with the annual Interport series.

And on the score of “something different”, it is appropriate The Alfonso arrives as the first overseas entrant for an “open” Group Three in Hong Kong on Sa Sa Ladies’ day – sponsored by Hong Kong’s own version of the “leviathan owner”, Simon Kwok Siu-ming. And that’s where we touch on an area where the Jockey Club again run the risk of becoming too alike with their stuffy northern hemisphere counterparts.

Hong Kong is in the enviable position of there being more rich people willing to buy horses than there are stables to put them in and, because demand outstrips supply by quite a margin, an individual owner is only permitted to have four horses at any one time.

Anyone familiar with Hong Kong racing would know that Mr Kwok names his horses Beauty-something, but there are a lot more than four of them running around. There are so many in fact that even experienced racing professionals sometimes struggle to separate their Beauty’s and wouldn’t know Happy Beauty from Go Beauty Go (be careful because they both run on Sunday).

In fact there are 13 Beauty’s in training at the moment – less than the 23 horses with Dragon in their name, but still, different people own the Dragons and anything with dragon in it is a cool name and gets a tick of approval from this blog every time.

Mr Kwok is able to have so many horses because technically he doesn’t own them all – he has the maximum four, and the rest are raced by family members. To most seasoned observers that is merely a technicality though, and after all, they are called Beauty-something, carry some sort of derivative of the iconic black, pink and white silks and let’s face it, are known as being “Kwok-owned”.

Mr Kwok, a mainstay, along with wife Eleanor, on Hong Kong’s rich lists, is a brand man – and clearly is a believer in playing a numbers game too, you only have to look at the Sa Sa store locator to understand that, with more than 250 cosmetics outlets to his name. He has clearly taken his entrepreneurial vision to racing as well.

This isn’t at all a shot at Kwok – he is a passionate racing man, who unlike some of his rivals, actually can be spotted at trackwork taking a close look at his expensive acquisitions.

Last season he won a bidding war for Australian stakes-placed stayer Montaigne – now “beautified” and named Beauty Generation, but did he just outbid another Hong Kong owner? And would the horses have ended up here anyway? Probably.

It is important to acknowledge that the Kwoks, and Williams for that matter, have an overwhelmingly positive effect on racing with their massive investments, but this is about balance.

Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse day is one of the real marketing success stories for the Jockey Club in recent years. Giving the girls an excuse to dress up has made it the second biggest day of the season by crowd, it attracts new faces and breaks the monotony for the racetrack regulars.

It’s a cracking day out, and thanks to Mr and Mrs Kwok there will be what seems at least 50,000 more girls at the track, but as far as racehorses go, how many “Beauty’s” do you really need?

Thankfully, from a racing perspective, courtesy of Joe Lau and his adventurous owners, there will be an entry from outside the square – perhaps something we will see more of once the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge is completed late next year.

And if Eleanor Kwok is presenting Joe Lau with the trophy after the Sa Sa Ladies Purse? Well, then you can truly say “what a great result for racing”.