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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Sometimes, it turns out that you're just holding the map upside down

The old 'orange box theory' was alive and well at Sha Tin on Sunday when the most obvious tactics in the seventh race turned a slowly-run event on paper upside down and into a too-fast contest on the track.

Too many years ago to think about, I had an economics teacher who was found of wheeling out his orange box theory to explain how markets changed over time.

It went like this: if someone went to a football game and brought an old orange box to stand on, that person could see over everyone else and had an advantage.

Over time, however, others would see that advantage, seek out their own orange boxes and soon enough everyone would have a box to stand on and nobody would have an advantage.

Putting aside my questions as to which circle of hell, even in the 1970s, required spectators to all stand on level ground at a football match, and even my nitpicking observation that not all people were the same height so there would be variations anyway, it was an easy concept to grasp.

Years later, other financial markets people came up with a much sexier tag for the erosion of an edge - alpha decay - but it was still just the orange box theory.

I have used this story in the past in a newspaper column to describe a race that was supposed to be fast-run on paper, with obvious strong competition for the lead, but turned into a solo leader affair that had a few punters at the time calling bloody murder on the race and demanding action by the stewards.

Sunday's Class 4 over 1600m was quite the opposite, with an apparently leisurely race pace turned into a slugfest for the first 800m. All the horses with early speed brought their orange boxes and took away any advantage for any of them and handed the edge to the back runners who fought out the finish.

This is one of the tricks of Hong Kong racing, in particular - maps. Yes, they are a trick in racing generally - and a powerful tool if you get them right - but particularly tricky in Hong Kong and here is why.

I know one astute form analyst in Hong Kong who will shake his head when such turnarounds occur and ask: "What did everyone think would happen? The whole world has had more than three days since the fields came out to think about nothing but what they need to do to win the race. Eventually, they all realise there's no pace."

Barriers come out on declaration day, usually Thursday, so that's the last piece of the tactical puzzle, but I'd even go a step further - Hong Kong is unusual in that the entries published on Monday are 95 per cent likely to be the actual field for Sunday. Under the rules, horses cannot be scratched for track conditions, wide barriers, big weights, changes of heart or the myriad reasons they are withdrawn from races in other jurisdictions.

Once a horse is in the entries, and the race isn't oversubscribed, the only way it doesn't run is a vet certificate - and the vets are employed by the Jockey Club, not the owners or trainers - or by order of the stewards, which might occur if an owner dies or if a horse has some kind of positive drug test hanging over it.

So, it's possible that the owners and trainers and jockeys for a particular race have been looking at their race for more than six days beforehand and not just realised there is a lack of speed but become obsessive about it.

To understand why they might become obsessive, you need to understand Hong Kong's 'today's the day' mentality.

You might have seen how jockeys punch the air and get what seems unreasonably excited about winning a pretty obscure middle or lower grade race. Or how big the smiles are on the owners and trainers as they line up for a Class 4 winning photo.

Well that's because getting a horse over the line in Hong Kong is very tough.

Firstly, there are no soft alternatives. There are no other places to run in order to find distance, opposition and circumstances to suit.

Even for a class and distance that seems quite frequent, opportunities to win are not as numerous as you might think.

Take the Sha Tin mile - in all of 2017-18 season, there were 62 races run at that distance. In Class 4 - and Class 4 races are the most frequently-staged class - you had 18 Sha Tin 1600m races available.

By the time you pick through the ones where your horse was fit, in-form and meeting the right kind of opposition, that might boil down to only two or three races all season where the connections thought: yep, today's the day.

And that is for Class 4 milers - a group pretty well catered for. If you have a Class 4 Happy Valley horse in need of an 1800m race - good luck, there are just seven of those a season. If he prefers the dirt, it's even more dire. There are three races as season for him.

To then find yourself confronted with a race map that doesn't? Well that means changing your game, because tactics are at least something you can control. So you take affirmative action and go forward when your usual pattern might be to go back, or vice versa, because it looks to suit this race.

Then everyone else turns up with their orange boxes too and it all goes pear-shaped.

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