For the first time this season – (some) fans were back in the Sha Tin stands – and those keen to get back on track had to be organised with the 880 public tickets selling out in six-and-a-half minutes.
With the Hong Kong government starting to relax restrictions after the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sunday was just the fourth opportunity members of the public had to attend the races since early February.
The Jockey Club started taking bookings for the meeting at midday on Tuesday and it didn’t take long for them to disappear.
“This meeting sold out within six-and-a-half minutes,” Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “The demand is there.
“When you go into the venues and see how happy the customers are, how excited they are, it’s great and that’s what we want to do. We are cautiously optimistic [of opening up more] with the cases stabilising.”
In total, there were 2,636 customers on course – with 1,756 members (and their guests) also on deck.
They all abided by the rules – signing declaration forms, undergoing a temperature screening, wearing masks and maintaining an adequate social distance from each other.
While spots at the next three meetings are sold out, the Jockey Club will wait until an update from the government before announcing what it is capable of beyond the National Day card on October 1.
“We don’t want to take bookings more than two weeks in advance. If things change, we can adapt,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said.
“The number of cases determines what we can do but we are on the right track so we will review and see if we can do more.”
The Jockey Club is enjoying a record start to the season in terms of turnover and it reached new heights on Sunday with HK$1.518 billion bet – an increase of HK$129 million on last year’s corresponding meeting.
“The last race was HK$212 million – that shows what happens when you get quality races,” Engelbrecht-Bresges said. “That’s why it’s so important that we get better horses into Hong Kong because in the end, it drives the turnover.
“Overall, we could not be happier with the start we’ve had and hopefully it is a good base to move forward.”
Callan salutes on Excellent Chariot
After knocking on the door during the first four meetings, Neil Callan is on the board for 2020-21 after saluting aboard Excellent Chariot in the second section of the Class Four Shek Lei Handicap (1,200m) at Sha Tin.
The Irishman entered the meeting with three seconds and two thirds to his credit but was confident he would walk home a winner given what he felt from Ricky Yiu Poon-fai’s promising type in a recent barrier trial.
The four-year-old put the writing on the wall when third to Group One performers Thanks Forever and Ka Ying Star in that hit-out and he didn’t disappoint in his seasonal return, coming away to beat Diamond Pegasus by a length and a quarter with the favourite Beluga a further three-quarters back in third.
“Everyone just wants to get the first winner out of the way. I’ve been here long enough not to be panicking. I’ve been riding some nice races and been riding some nice horses – most of the horses just haven’t been ready,” Callan said.
“After the trial I remember saying to my wife Trish – now we’ve got something we can win on. It’s all about opportunities and hopefully more come.”
Excellent Chariot had finished third in all three of his starts last season – all over 1,000m at Happy Valley – and he looked to appreciate the longer trip and bigger track.
“He’s a nice young horse. I tried to get on him last season – he was running well over shorter distances. I thought he looked like a versatile type when he was trialling. I asked Ricky if I could jump on this year and he was true to his word and he let me do a bit of work on him early,” Callan said.
“His trial was very good behind Thanks Forever and Ka Ying Star – he gave me a nice, comfortable feel and I went into today very confident he could win, so I think he should be able to go on an upwards curve.”
It was the second of a double for the stable, who also tasted success with Fabulous Eight (Joao Moreira) in the Class Four Lei Muk Shue Handicap (1,000m).
So’s unwanted Monster prevails
For the most part, this season has been an easy one for punters with only four of the 46 winners paying more than 10-1, but there was a carrot for those who play the outsiders at Sha Tin on Sunday.
The longest-priced winner of the term so far lobbed with Chris So Wai-yin’s Tianchi Monster storming home to land the Class Three Lai King Handicap (1,600m) at a juicy $58.75.
It was the gelding’s first win since February 2019, but he did put in two strong runs at the start of last term, which gave his trainer some optimism heading into the contest.
“It was the same as last year – he ran well in Class Two but this year it was Class Three. It was a small field as well which helped a lot,” So said.
“We established that 1,800m was his best distance but we thought we would try this and it worked. We were confident but I wasn’t confident enough to tell the owner it was a sure win, but he ran well.”
Tianchi Monster’s form didn’t read particularly well – he hadn’t finished better than eighth in his previous eight runs – so it was difficult for the handler to find a rider.
Because the six-year-old had finished sixth to Furore in the 2019 Hong Kong Derby, most were holding off until he was racing over further than a mile, but Brazilian Vagner Borges answered the call and collected his second winner of the campaign.
“We actually asked a couple of jockeys to ride this horse but some jockeys said they wanted to see how he ran today,” the trainer said. “So I asked Borges and he was rewarded.”