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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
As the curtain falls on Hong Kong's gruelling racing season, the dash for the Sha Tin exits is traditionally the most fiercely contested of all.
If you thought the battle between Zac Purton and Joao Moreira at Saturday’s season finale was something, then consider what is traditionally the most competitive contest of the day: the race to get out of the racecourse, onto a plane and out of Hong Kong.
By the time you read this, champion jockey Zac Purton is sunning himself in the Maldives after securing a 9.30pm departure, Saturday evening, from Chek Lap Kok airport.
“I’m ready to go, I’ve had enough,” Purton had declared in the lead-up to the final meeting. The unofficial ‘race 12’ of the final day is always a frantic blur of wheeled luggage and rushed interviews that generally begin with the line, “hurry up guys I’ve got a plane to catch.”
After taking care of business on the track, and within 12 hours of the race to the boarding gate, Purton was posting photos on Instagram of his daughter Roxy ordering gelato in front of the Jumeirah Al Naseem while on stopover in Dubai.
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The urgency to get out isn’t necessarily a knock on Hong Kong racing – although the past two years of strict Covid protocols and travel restrictions have been particularly testing – but it is testament to the demands of a season that has crept deep into the stifling heat and humidity of summer. The amount of times jockeys have spoken of mental stress this season is also a reminder of the importance of the jurisdiction’s ever-shrinking summer break.
Moreira and the departed Blake Shinn cited mental health issues as a concern this season, and they are successful riders who can afford to speak out, so it is safe to assume others are suffering in silence.
A limited racing schedule is one of the outstanding characteristics of Hong Kong racing but over the years the Hong Kong Jockey Club has slowly and successfully expanded in the constant search for higher betting turnover.
At the dawn of the professional era in 1971 there were a leisurely 252 races per season. It was a time when British and Australian jockeys could easily pass through for a busman’s holiday that didn’t impact their careers in their primary base.
As turnover and interest grew, so did the season, but jockeys like Tony Cruz and Gary Moore were still able to enjoy considerable success in Europe during the summer break.
Co-Tack, ridden by jockey Tony Cruz, wins the 1984 San Miguel Silver Tankard. (Photo by M. Chan/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
By the mid 1990s the number of races had more than doubled and the meetings had risen from fewer than 50 to 78. It meant Hong Kong was a year-round commitment, but even then, the end date for the season was a full month earlier than its current station in mid-July.
There are 10 more meetings now, and the rise in turnover has been commensurate with that, but the extended schedule comes at a human cost.
A common misnomer about Hong Kong racing is that racing just twice-per-week makes it somehow easier than the jurisdictions with wall-to-wall schedules. What grinds away at the top jockeys in Hong Kong is not the amount of races, but the intensity of them, the unrelenting heat in summer and the lack of breaks. If jockeys want to succeed they must study form, chase rides for themselves and ride trackwork everyday.
Of course there will be those in the club and its subsidised media who push the “love it or leave it” line with regards to riding in Hong Kong, but that is the point: when Purton and Moreira do inevitably leave, most likely pushed by physical ailments and mental stress, they will leave a jockey roster light on elite talent and star power.
When Purton first arrived in Hong Kong the jockeys’ room boasted superstars Douglas Whyte, Darren Beadman, Brett Prebble, Gerald Mosse, Felix Coetzee and Glen Boss. Christophe Soumillon was a regular visitor. The dominance of Purton and Moreira is often cited as the reason Hong Kong no longer attracts the same calibre of rider, but how much is lifestyle choice a factor?
Gerald Mosse riding work at Sha Tin in 2007. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)
Brett Prebble and David Hall celebrate Absolute Champion's Hong Kong Sprint success in 2006. (Photo by Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)
The off-season also provides a chance for track maintenance. Punters marvel at the ability of Sha Tin and Happy Valley to withstand wet weather and be largely free of bias, but that is made possible by the aggressive coring and maintenance work that takes place during the six-week break by tracks manager Stephen Higgins and his team.
Next season’s start has been “pushed back ” one week to September 11, which is when the season started ten years ago. The devil is in the detail though: there are five more meetings now, not including any ‘exhibition meetings’ at Conghua, and there isn’t a break longer than four days between meetings until June 20, 2023 – a week in which another meeting could be rescheduled if lost to a typhoon.
The season will still run deep into Hong Kong’s hottest month, July, which has an average maximum temperature of 31 degrees and minimum low of 27. Just to emphasise: July is hot in Hong Kong. John Moore doesn’t wear safari suits and Tony Cruz doesn’t rock an Andy Sipowicz-style short-sleeve shirt with a tie as fashion statements. When Moreira blacked out and fell from his mount after the line on a 32 degree day in May this year it should have served as a warning.
Moreira loaded into the ambulance after suffering dehydration on a 32 degree day, May 29, 2022. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
The break means there is a defining end and start to the season, and that helps generate interest in the jockeys’ and trainers’ premierships. It also generates spikes in turnover at the start and end of the season.
The British Flat Jockeys Championship became a muddle when flat racing went year-round with the arrival of All-Weather racing in the late 1980s. Authorities responded as recently as 2015 by switching to a championship decided between 2,000 Guineas day in late April/early May and Champions Day in mid-October, which ignores about eight weeks of the traditional turf season. But it still lacks the punch it once had.
Veteran jockey John Egan recently blamed the problem of small field sizes in the UK on too many races and said it threatened the popularity of the sport. “There’s too much racing,” he told Racing Post. “I think less is more and we’ve got to have less.”
For now Hong Kong’s field sizes are holding, although the quality of the horses in those races is a matter of debate, but Egan’s line ‘less is more’ is worth considering as the Jockey Club enters a brave new world of regularly racing on the mainland.
Beyond Purton and Moreira: Hong Kong season in review
The Conghua Racecourse in Guangdong means the Jockey Club now has three locations to race at – even if one of them is without betting, for now.
The recent announcements on licensing included confirmation of a further extension and Dubai carnival-style racing at the new track, creating “a triangle of racing across our three racecourses.”
Racing in Hong Kong has come a long way in the last 50 years, and it is an exciting time for the Jockey Club as it expands its footprint, but hopefully the emphasis remains on quality over quantity.
Perhaps Purton said it best after his four-timer on Saturday: “It’s energy sapping, we’re both right at the end of our tether so it’s nice that we can close it today and both go on holiday, then come back and do it again next season.”
If Hong Kong racing wants to retain the vibrancy that has made it a prized destination in years past, the sanctity of the summer break needs to be preserved. And if the Jockey Club needs a turnover kicker beyond its summer simulcasts, maybe they should let us bet on which jockey is first to get on a plane?
On track and off, Purton is the master of the Hong Kong game
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