The biggest crowd in over a year will converge on Sha Tin for Champions Day next Sunday as Covid-19 restrictions relax and the buzz slowly returns to Hong Kong racing.
With the Jockey Club expecting in excess of 6,000 people on track for the bumper meeting, it will mark the first time attendance has surpassed that mark since 8,289 people were on track on January 27 last year – the first time crowd restrictions were introduced in response to the pandemic.
“Today was the first day that we were able to step-up attendance, we were clear to have 7,500 people today and it’s the same next Sunday – that number is up from 5,000 and everything is in a two-week cycle,” said Jockey Club director of racing business and operations Bill Nader.
“We weren’t going to get [near 7,500] today being a Saturday but next week should be good. Hopefully it injects a little bit more atmosphere into the big day.”
While 6,000 or so doesn’t compare to the monster crowds that traditionally descend on Hong Kong’s biggest days, it will dwarf the paltry 271 people that were on course for the Hong Kong International Races in December and the 335 that watched on during Champions Day 12 months ago.
Of the 7,500 allowed in attendance, a headcount of 2,800 will be allocated to members and 4,700 to the general public, with some venues restricted to priority card holders to spread out the crowd.
Nader also indicated up to 1,000 people would be admitted to Happy Valley for cross betting during the Champions Day meeting.
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Meanwhile, the Jockey Club’s racing bubble – which allows overseas connections to travel between their hotel and Sha Tin without completing the mandatory quarantine – is “going perfectly”.
Nine stable hands and a translator from Japan are in the bubble, while jockey Kohei Matsuyama – who partners Daring Tact – and Glory Vase’s trainer Tomohito Ozeki are the only Japanese connections making the trip to Hong Kong and will arrive next week.
Nader also confirmed the five Japanese horses who landed in Hong Kong last week are doing well.
Hamelin’s happy hunting ground
Antoine Hamelin continued his strong dirt form in the Alnwick Handicap (1,200m), booting home the John-Size trained Red Desert to record his second Class Two win on the all-weather track in as many months.
Hamelin’s win aboard Red Desert followed his recent Class Two success aboard Silver Fig and was the Frenchman’s fifth on the dirt for the season at a strike rate of 15 per cent.
“It was nice, today everything went right,” said Hamelin, who settled behind the leaders from gate seven before wearing down Kurpany in the dying stages.
“It wasn’t a bad draw, the horse jumped well and I was lucky enough to follow Joao [Moreira aboard Kurpany] in the lead and the horse finished very nicely.”
It was Hamelin’s fifth win of the season for Size, drawing him level with Karis Teetan for the second-most victories for the championship-leading trainer in 2020-21 behind Moreira on 30.
“It’s a very good relationship, I’m very happy to ride for him – I hope it keeps going for a long time,” Hamelin said.
Hamelin was quick to look forward following his victory, confirming he will partner Fat Turtle in the Group One Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1,200m) and Mighty Giant in the Group One Champions Mile on Champions Day.
Both will have thier work cut out – Fat Turtle against Japanese raider Danon Smash, Mighty Giant up against Golden Sixty – but Hamelin will be going in with an open mind.
“You never know in these races, anything is possible. I’ll do my best and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Hamelin partnered Fat Turtle into fifth in December’s Hong Kong Sprint but has never ridden Mighty Giant, who enters the race in top form after taking out the Group Two Chairman’s Trophy (1,600m) earlier this month.
“I’m very happy to ride him, he was a nice winner last time. Of course we have a champion in the race but the horse is in good form,” the jockey said.
Fownes the bridesmaid
He sits only three wins behind Size on the premiership table but Caspar Fownes’ winless run extended to 55 starters on Saturday, by far the most of any trainer.
Fownes’ last victory came courtesy of Sky Darci in the Derby back on March 21 but it’s not like he hasn’t been around the mark – the affable handler has had 20 placings in an agonising run since last tasting success.
Four of those came on Saturday, with Fownes having to suffer through runner-up performances from Double Take, $4.30 favourite Sky Show and Perfect To Great, while Kurpany had to settle for third after looking a certainty in the run for home.
It continues a trend for the prolific Fownes in 2020-21, who has more seconds and thirds than anyone this season, with Saturday’s result moving him to 56 seconds and 59 thirds to go with his 54 winners.
Roll the Dice
Former Hong Kong galloper Gold Win, now named Dice Roll and trained by Nick Ryan, made a long-awaited return to the winner’s circle at Caulfield in Melbourne on Saturday, taking out a handicap over 1,400m in his first run since finishing last at Sha Tin in his final outing for Tony Cruz in September 2019.
Owned by Pan Sutong, it was Dice Roll’s first victory since the gelding won a Group Three at Deauville in April 2018.
After four wins from seven starts in France, Dice Roll was purchased with the 2019 Hong Kong Derby in mind but that dream ended when the galloper finished a long last in the Classic Mile.
In all Dice Roll had 11 starts for a best finish of fourth in Hong Kong before connections decided to try thier luck in a third jurisdiction.
He’s not the only ex-Hong Kong galloper to salute Down Under in recent weeks, with former Douglas Whyte-trained five-year-old Reynolds peeling off consecutive victories for new trainer Michael Hickmott in South Australia earlier this month.