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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Quarantine issues over, let's work on competition

As welcome as Australian horses, like In Her Time (right), are for the Hong Kong International Races next month, it is arguably not a big deal that this week's quarantine resolution came too late for 2019 HKIR.

Connections of Kris Lees-trained In Her Time had already made the commitment, despite horses going back to Australia from Hong Kong having to do a six-month quarantine in a third country.

That was a regime imposed by Australian quarantine authorities in October, 2017, in light of the new Conghua Training Centre extending Hong Kong's racing biosphere beyond Sha Tin and into mainland China.

It has taken longer than many expected, though not as long as some forecast, to reach a new agreement with Australian authorities on the measures in place to prevent and contain equine diseases.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club had gone to great lengths in designing, building and commencing operations at Conghua (above) with a wide disease-free zone surrounding it and hermetically sealing the process of horses trafficked by road four times a week between Conghua and Sha Tin - twice up, twice back - but Australia's border authorities are the world's toughest regulators for the island nation's biosecurity.

While the high profile side of the issue was the difficulties with getting top class horses from Australia to compete in Hong Kong's internationals, or vice versa, and that will be the strong positive reported out of it too, the repatriation of retired horses was also affected.

It was feared a backlog of horses being retired and unable to leave for Australia would build up and cause logistical problems over time in Hong Kong or in available spaces in New Zealand but the return to previous protocols will alleviate that fear.

Temporary raceday protocols had already allowed horses from Australia, like Santa Ana Lane, to compete without trouble in the Chairman's Sprint Prize at Hong Kong's big spring meeting last April, although competing in the other direction had been a serious problem.

Things are now back to normal and expect to see the usual stream of runners from Australia in Hong Kong again and even opening up the possibility that a horse like Aethero could compete in The Everest, as much as that might bring a different set of problems.

But "the usual stream" of runners from Australia for international races in Hong Kong has not been all that strong for some time.

For the December internationals, most Australian connections want to squeeze their top horses for the best domestic races there before any thought of heading overseas is discussed, and the scenario is largely the same after the Sydney autumn carnival. That doesn't usually leave many tentative Hong Kong plans intact.

Thrilling grey sprinter Chautauqua, of course, was the most recent at Sha Tin in 2016 but his was the first win in Hong Kong for Australia in 15 years.

The early days of the Hong Kong International Races in the 1990s saw wins for the likes of Aussie-trained Kessem and State Taj in the Cup, and for Monopolize and Catalan Opening in the Mile and its previous incarnation, the Bowl and Falvelon took back to back HK Sprints in 2000 and 2001. (There were a couple of New Zealanders too but for the point of this article, Romanee Conti, Sunline and any beaten Kiwis are not included).

But those memories are a long time ago and Aussie input for the international meeting has been largely in decline in the last decade and had dried up completely even before the new rules. One little-appreciated side to that has been a drop in the allocation of Hong Kong simulcasts - which are limited in number by law - to Australian majors.

One of the criteria used to decide them is Hong Kong interest, either directly through Hong Kong-trained runners there or, indirectly, through the possibility of runners in those meetings coming to Sha Tin for international events. Punters might not care but that is a cash flow that matters for Australian race clubs through the sale of rights.

Above is the list of runners from Australia and there was that huge break in success between Falvelon's second HK Sprint in 2001 and the next win for Chautauqua in 2016.

So, a quarantine problem with Japan would be devastating; with Australia, not so much.

And, in fairness, it was a similar story going the other way.

Cape Of Good Hope won a G1 in Melbourne and there were some other good G1 performances without winning but, for all the talk of horses like Vengeance Of Rain or Military Attack going to the Cox Plate, the timing did not work - certainly pre-Conghua - in terms of getting those horses fit enough to do themselves justice considering Hong Kong's early season.

The lifting of travel restrictions was probably a bigger HKIR story than it needed to be, since impact of Hong Kong horses in Australia at an international level had not been significant and Australia hadn't been strong for some time in Hong Kong but, at least now the hurdle of quarantine is back to a manageable size, perhaps everyone can work on that again.

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