The home straights at Happy Valley and Sha Tin felt a bit shorter this racing season if you were backing leaders. Or maybe they were just a touch longer if you were on closers. Either way, the nerves were not as frayed because Hong Kong racing was less competitive this year. It was no easier to own, train, ride or back a winner, but the finishes were not quite as nail-biting. Following two seasons of tight, neck-and-neck race finishes, the 2002-03 season returned to more comfortable margins with just over 31 per cent of races decided by half a length or less. That was a significant drop from 39 and 40 per cent respectively in the preceding years. There were more races than ever before, with a final total of 710 by the time Sunday's meeting was complete - the first time 700 had been exceeded. While more first favourites won races - 196 including one dead heat - favourite punters were no better off and possibly the tiniest bit worse than previously even though their judgment was quite accurate. The first betting choice scored in 27.6 per cent of races, after winning 27.7 per cent in 2001-02, and the average price of each was virtually the same - $32.30 last year and $32.27 this time. In dollars and cents, that meant the punter with a flat $10 bet on the nose of each and every first favourite all season spent $7,100 and lost about $1,315 or 18.5 per cent of his outlay. The champion trainer remains the punter's pin-up. Without opening a formguide, Size backers showed a nice profit again this season. A flat $10 bet on every Size runner cost you $4,680 this time around and you stood in line for $5,099 in return. That was a profit of just under nine per cent on your money. That was helped no doubt by Even Tilden and Latte scoring at huge odds but try getting it at HSBC, or on the Hang Seng Index, for that matter. Anyone who has ever laid odds-on about 'the certainty' will not be surprised to know that odds-on punters finished way out the back as usual. Sixty odds-on chances were sent out this season, with just 25 of them justifying that confidence. The $10 punter's $600 spend at the windows finished in tatters this time, with his collects totalling only $419 and a loss of more than 30 per cent on his outlay. The shortest was the grand-daddy of all odds-on favourites, John Moore's griffin Four Aces, who returned a princely $10.50 when winning in February after looking to be in a bit of trouble at the 200 metres. Elsewhere, things remained much the same this season in many ways. The average winner's payout was $100.80, which was down from $103 last year but better than the $97 of two years ago and in keeping with the longer term average. Well-fancied horses dominated with those $110 and under winning 545 of the races or just under 77 per cent, a figure which is very consistent. The number of individual winning horses was fairly constant considering the increase in the numbers of races. A total of 478 horses won at least one race in 2002-03, which was a lower percentage than last year and just under the average for the past six seasons altogether but higher than 2000-2001. But while there were more winning horses, one statistic does stand out in bold relief. There was yet another rise in the number of horses which competed. With the changes brought on by the Jockey Club's encouragement policies and the many ways a slow horse can be replaced by a (hopefully) faster one, 1,263 horses ran in domestic events. That is a jump of more than 40 on last season and a rise of well over 100 in two years. The total of multiple winners was down for the third straight year. Only one horse won six races this season - champion sprinter Grand Delight - but three won five times, nine won four and 40 horses were able to take out three events. There were 110 double winners.