Hong Kong racing fans turned up in droves for the start of the Lunar New Year but even their physical presence was dwarfed by their participation through the windows on a raceday that looked auspicious in many ways going forward.
With grey skies about to dissuade those who wanted dissuading, the crowd of 96,000 – more than 90,000 of them at Sha Tin – was not a record but the best since 2014.
The turnover, however, was an all-time record for the day at HK$1.759 billion, nudged along by a commingling record of HK$96 million, including around HK$25 million bet in the United Kingdom.
“That’s quite remarkable – at 7am on a Monday, the turnover of about £2 million (HK$25 million) shows that there is a strong appeal for our racing even in the UK,” said chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges in between spells of lai see handouts that had him drawing a crowd wherever he went.
“As far as the crowd goes, I think any time you get 90,000 people on track to watch racing, that’s a tremendous achievement.
“The Chinese New Year is such strong part of the Chinese culture and I think this race day is a key traditional event in that culture, too.”
Of course, Sha Tin was a sea of red for the start of the Year of the Rooster, which could have had issues for the Stewards’ Cup favourite, Helene Paragon.
After all, with his trainer John Moore decked out vaguely resembling a bullfighter, the horse that Moore has nicknamed “El Toro” due to his Spanish provenance was moving into ominous territory.
El Toro prevailed after a little bit of olé from visiting jockey Tommy Berry but the Moore horse most eyes were on, once Hong Kong talisman Able Friend, started the new lunar year without luck.
“I think I would have made it interesting with the winner if I get a clear run,” said Joao Moreira after running third. “He’s getting there.”
Moreira had already played a part in the day’s festivities, having the honour of landing the opening winner of the new year, the aptly named Treasure And Gold, on a day when the God Of Wealth was front and centre.
On the track, the sporting side of the day was unusually strong, with the calendar falling in just the right way that the Stewards’ Cup – one of the top mile races on earth – and the Group Two Centenary Sprint took place on a day often only decorated with the Chinese New Year Cup.
“I think maybe we will think about an upgrade to Group One standing for Centenary Sprint,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges after a 1,200m event that was almost a rerun of the Longines Hong Kong Sprint.
“The rating of the race could certainly justify it.”
In the saddle, the day belonged to the feature winners, Berry, Neil Callan, who won the Sprint on another appropriately named horse, Peniaphobia (the fear of poverty), and to star-on-the-rise Sam Clipperton, who chipped in with a treble including the Chinese New Year Cup that took him to 25 wins in his debut season.
“That’s amazing – you know that was my target for the whole season when I got here,” Clipperton grinned. “I’ll have to come up with a new target.”
And, ultimately, looking ahead, new targets and fresh directions are what the Lunar New Year is all about.