Blue skies and an abundance of optimism as a new Hong Kong racing season opens
By Alan Aitken
Not even severe weather could conquer the Sha Tin racecourse or keep Hong Kong’s punters away from the track and the windows as the new racing season opened with close to record crowds and turnover and some history-making winners.
Sha Tin showed off its remarkable powers after 342 mm of rain in previous seven days – 34 mm of that in the 24 hours prior to racing – with an upgrade to a good surface early in the day after the sun had broken though after midday and stuck around for the rest of the afternoon.
Amazingly, the Jockey Club reported the second-best best crowd ever for an opening day – the 74,722 fans falling just a couple of hundred short of the 2015 record - and second-best opening day turnover on record at HK$1.253 billion despite handing back $33 million to punters when heavily-backed Impeccable Fellow was a late scratching at the gates before race six and despite uncharacteristically small fields.
“What I thought was amazing was to get figures like those after we had an amber rainstorm warning in the morning,” said Jockey Club chief executive, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “That kind of weather warning just before a meeting usually has quite a significant impact on turnover and especially on the attendance, as you can understand, but not today. Especially pleasing in our turnover numbers was the increase in commingling turnover by $104 million to $158 million.”
An amber rainstorm forecast is a warning prior to storms with a minimum of 30mm per hour rainfall so for punters still to come out racing was a pleasant surprise.
After Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, banged the gong to get things under way, it didn’t take long to conquer fresh ground as the opening race went to South African jockey Grant van Niekerk, having his first ride in Hong Kong, on the first runner of trainer Jimmy Ting’s career – a double without precedent - and both went on to add a second winner later in the card.
The featured Chief Executive’s Cup went to Zac Purton on Tony Cruz-trained Winner’s Way, who will be targeting the Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December after joining a rare group who have won this race carrying big handicap weights.
The white-hot jockeys’ championship favourite, Zac Purton settled Winner’s Way towards the rear of the small field before unleashing an irresistible finish to score by a neck in an equal weight-carrying record and set himself on a path to clash with the top sprinters.
“I think he’s probably just off the best horses here; he just needs to improve a little bit more if he’s going to be a competitor in December,” said Purton. “He’s done a great job to get to where he’s got to and he carried weight. It was a good win again and he’s very honest. He’s lost a bit of his gate speed as he’s got further into his career; they went along very fast and he was off the bit, but he wasn’t off the bit struggling, he was relaxed and that meant I was able to get a beautiful run from him. He gave me a good kick and then had to fight the last 150 metres. He likes to win, so that’s a great asset.”
The win righted the ship for the sea of Purton followers, who have quickly installed him in their hearts and wallets in the absence this season of Joao Moreira and have plenty of ups and downs ahead in 2018-19, most likely at quite short prices.
Purton was beaten on strong fancies in the first two races before Winner’s Way, and his day entailed four outright favourites and five second favourites and a bottom line of two wins, with King Opie also scoring at odds-on.
Opening day is often a battleground for punters and Sunday was no different, with Winner’s Way and King Opie the only favourites to arrive, a treble of double figure winners late and some massive plunges going astray, including Daring Fit, down from 8.5 to 3.2 before finishing second, Jumbo Luck from 9.3 to 4.0 before he was unplaced in the feature and Noble Steed out of a place in the eighth race after he was backed from 3.5 to 2.0.
One of the primary questions for the new season will be how horses perform coming from the new Congua Training Centre in China for the first time and the opening day answer to that was a sound thumbs up.
While there wasn’t a winner from the 11 runners which had done all or most of their preparation at Conghua, there were two good seconds and a number of others which ran well.
“After one small sample, it probably isn’t a strong indication either way, but it was a positive enough start for Conghua,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges. “And it’s always good to see our new trainers and jockeys begin their careers well too, so Grant van Niekerk and Jimmy Ting have jumped out of the gates the right way.”