Former Jockey Club chairman led the push for excellence Former Hong Kong Jockey Club chairman Alan Li Fook-sum, who died yesterday in Phuket, steered the Hong Kong International Races to world prominence. Li was a true believer in the future of the international meeting and, during his chairmanship from 1998-2002, became the guiding force behind the drive to turn the international races into the 'turf world championship'. Li, who is believed to have died from a heart attack at the age of 66, never shrank from his commitment to building prize-money for the international meeting and this was answered by a sharp lift in the quality of the races. 'I like to think I have given the international races a bit of a push,' he said modestly in November, 2001. Although not the originator of the Hong Kong international meeting, Li became a steward of the Jockey Club in 1987, when the first Hong Kong Invitational Cup was run and was still on the board of the club at the time of his death. During his reign, prize-money for the Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) more than doubled - from $20 million for three races in 1998 to $54 million for four international events in 2002 - and the level of competition soared, marking the transition of the meeting from a lucrative novelty to a serious world event. Li's vision enabled him to see that the hoisting of the prize-money was more than simply a giveaway for foreign owners. He believed, given that Hong Kong has no breeding industry to drive excellence, the only way to increase the standards was to inspire owners to seek better horses. 'Of course, it is a double edged sword. You bring the best horses here but then they take much of the prize-money away, too. This is the price you pay for improving the standard. 'When our international races began, Group One winners were not allowed to come because they would have been just far too good, but the club has been able to match to some extent the rising strength of the international races against the rising strength of our local racing. Now the proof of what we have achieved is in the high standard of horses which are coming.' As a boy, Li found inspiration in racing when accompanying his father, Li Lan-sang, one of Hong Kong's most prolific owners of the time, to watch trackwork at Happy Valley in the 1950s. In recent years, his red, green and black colours have been carried successfully by high-grade winners Mentor and Visorhill, but the best horse Li owned in Hong Kong was the outstanding sprinter-miler, Gilgit, trained by George Moore in the early 1980s. Gilgit's wins included the Stewards' Cup in record time, carrying 150 pounds, and he was also second in the Hong Kong Derby and Centennial Cup, but Li also maintained breeding and racing interests overseas, particularly in France, where he had been a part-owner of the top flight stayer, Sagace, and also the Australian horse, Strawberry Road, who campaigned successfully in Europe in the 1980s. Jockey Club chief executive Lawrence Wong Chi-kong led the tributes last night, saying: 'This is such a sad loss. He loved his racing so much. I spoke to him just the other day and he told me he would be rushing back to make sure he was at the races on Thursday.' Three times champion Hong Kong trainer Ivan Allan was the regular trainer of Li's horses in recent years, including his latest horse Saturn, a purchase made by Li in France during last summer. 'This is a great loss. Alan Li was my good friend and a true racing man,' Allan said. 'I have known him for many years, and enjoyed racing with him in Hong Kong and in France. 'His passing is a great loss to racing in Hong Kong on which he had such a marvellous positive influence.' Champion jockey Douglas Whyte was stunned by the news: 'He was always so happy and well when I saw him racing, it's hard to believe and very sad news. One of my first Cup wins here was on one of his horses, Citadeed. 'It was quite an important race, the horse won right on the line and I remember being absolutely thrilled to win a big race and especially on the chairman's horse. I have always had great respect for Mr Li, we got on very well and he was a man who did some wonderful things for racing in this part of the world. My deepest condolences go out to his family.' A Francophile, Li was honoured with the Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur nearly three years ago. 'I have always loved all things French. I love the food, the literature, the music, among other things,' he told the Post. One of his four sons, Dominic, joined the Jockey Club in January 2002 as international racing manager and remains in that post today and another son, Sean, is employed in the club's IT department.