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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
David Morgan explores the myriad bloodstock complexities currently impacting the Hong Kong market.
Not so long ago, a HK$10 million (AU$1.8 million) outlay would have been enough to put a high-profile Australian or European stakes horse aboard a plane for a new life at Sha Tin. But the times are ever a-changing for Hong Kong’s owners: in the past decade their dollars have been stretched and their market options reduced.
During a recent interview on the Hutchi’s Honkers podcast, Hong Kong’s champion trainer Caspar Fownes – in conversation with his brother-in-law Clint Hutchison and ex-jockey Shane Dye – expressed candidly his frustration at how the market has altered to the detriment of Hong Kong racing.
“You know, in the old days we could spend two million or two and a half million Aussie (dollars) but now that’s seriously not getting you what you want. They’re offering you horses for 800 (thousand) or a million and they’re not even worth 300,000, to tell you the truth,” he said.
Fownes’s fellow Sha Tin trainer, Richard Gibson, gave Asian Racing Report a Northern Hemisphere slant: “It still amazes me, when contacting European trainers with offers north of £500,000 (AU$870,000), not being considered after that horse has won a £3,000 maiden. It’s staggering.”
This reality, Fownes noted, has prompted a shift in thinking about Hong Kong’s model of buying horses: “It’s just looking like our future is buying either good trialled horses or preparing horses that you buy from the yearling sales or breeze-up sales and hope that you hit a star amongst them.”
That, on the face of it, suggests less PPs (Private Purchases) and more PPGs (Privately Purchased Griffins): less stakes-tried imports like Werther, Designs On Rome and Beauty Generation and more unraced stock, ideally like Able Friend, bought as a yearling, and Golden Sixty, sourced out of a New Zealand breeze-up sale.
Hong Kong Horse of the Year Werther. (Photo by HKJC)
When Asian Racing Report spoke to Fownes, he added: “At the top, you’ve still got maybe 15 guys, big owners, who are still prepared to pay 12 to 15 million Hong Kong (dollars) (AU$2.7-3.6 million) for a top PP but there are a few that have copped it tough with the repercussions of the Covid situation and they are a little bit quiet, so it’s a mixed bag at the moment.”
Cambridge Stud boss Henry Plumptre, who has a long association with the Hong Kong market, observed: “I don’t think the appetite for expensive horses has changed one bit. They are still paying a minimum of NZ$250,000 to NZ$300,000 for a single trial winner out of New Zealand. They are still paying up to NZ$1 million for private purchases of raced horses. They are paying significantly more than NZ$1 million for the real deal.”
But any course of action by owners and trainers buying for the Hong Kong market is knit to the prevailing trends in Australasia and Europe. Australian racing is rolling in high prize money and booming ownership syndicates: those that recruit the ‘man on the street’ and those made up of savvy stallion investors. There is little to no incentive for either group to sell a prized asset to Hong Kong.
Similarly, the European scene is dominated at the high end by large owner-breeders, huge entities like Godolphin, Juddmonte and Coolmore. Those owners are less likely to sell high-class prospects that could in time boost stallion ranks or earn precious black type to the benefit of their broodmare bands. In addition, horses that were once sold down a Hong Kong Derby route are now also prime picks for Australian and Gulf region buyers.
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Fownes’ Sha Tin neighbour Tony Millard believes a return to the yearling sales could be the solution.
“When we first came to Hong Kong, we used to go to Keeneland, Goffs, Tattersalls and then the Australian sales, that’s how we used to buy our horses and that approach has been lost,” Millard said.
“There is only one way the owners can turn it around and get what they’d like for their money, that’s go back to the sales, to the source. I’m not saying pay a million dollars for a yearling, but we need those genetics and we can get them by buying nice horses in a certain bracket at the yearling sales. Often, you’re not getting those horses with a PPG out of a barrier trial.”
Richard Gibson, who trained Akeed Mofeed to win the 2013 Hong Kong Derby after Pan Sutong paid a reputed sum close to €2 million (AU$3 million) for the well-bred Irish Derby fourth, is also wary of any approach that promotes a high volume of horses bought unraced out of barrier trials.
“Hong Kong is the only race system in the world where pedigree is irrelevant and physique and mentality are key. But, for the benefit of racing here, we need to see owners buy more premier yearlings because we need Lope De Vegas, we need Siyounis, unraced; we need the premium stallions of the world; it’s a worry that a lot of the PPGs are substandard in pedigree, so are they running out of pedigree before they reach the Group races?” he said.
Akeed Mofeed was fourth in the Irish Derby before being purchased for a reputed almost €2 million. (Photo by HKJC)
An attendant problem could be brewing beneath the surface. In the wake of Covid restrictions that prevented owners from being on-course to see their horses compete, and the pandemic’s resultant economic effects, there is a fear among participants that Hong Kong’s registered owners might be waning.
Recently, the HKJC released – after a delay – the latest permit allocations, which enable owners to buy a horse. The Club issued only 90 PP permits, representing a drop from at least 130 for each year since 2017 – 150 were issued in 2019 from 254 applications – and applications were down to 133 from 171 in 2021.
On the other hand, 310 PPG permits were issued, climbing back to 2017 and 2018 levels after a dip to 280 in 2021. But, while last year brought 719 PPG permit applications, this year the HKJC received only 626, a significant drop from the 965 PPG applications it received in 2017.
“It was an unusual change, only 90 PP permits,” said Alastair Donald, an agent with a history of buying successfully for Hong Kong owners. “I would probably say I’ve got less orders for the routine PP, the £150,000 to £300,000 (AU$260,000 – AU$525,000), but Derby-type PPs, the appetite seems to be the same.”
Gibson, on the other hand, noted that he is in a ‘fortunate position’ with ‘a lot of PP orders’, but acknowledged the difficulty of buying higher quality prospects: “You can pick up the £200,000 (AU$350,000) horses all over the place, everyone wants to sell them, there’s hundreds of them, and then an owner says they’ve got HK$4 million (AU$700,000) and more for a good horse, they’re very tricky horses to find.”
Golden Sixty is well clear of his Hong Kong peers. (Photo by HKJC)
The problems in securing quality stock – exacerbated by more than two years of owners and trainers not being able to leave Hong Kong to view horses – appear to be having a knock-on-effect on the track: horse numbers and quality are down.
With only 21 trainers licensed, the HKJC aims for a horse population of between 1,250 and 1,300. The opening of Conghua, with 660 more boxes, should have given scope for more. On April 1 of this year, 1,236 horses were in the system and two trainers, Frankie Lor and Ricky Yiu, had a full capacity of 70 horses; by May 31, the number had dropped to 1,181 and no trainer was operating at capacity.
More striking is the shallowing of Hong Kong’s elite pool. Figures taken from the IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) World’s Best Racehorse Rankings confirm the thinning out of Hong Kong’s Group race ranks.
In 2016, Hong Kong had 25 horses in the rankings; in 2017 it had 22 and in 2018 the number was 25. In 2019 that dipped to 20 before a dive in 2020 to 15 horses, while last year only 14 Hong Kong horses ranked.
Furthermore, five Hong Kong horses were given a rating of 120 or higher in 2018 and 2019, dipping to four in 2020 and then falling to two in 2021. Just as striking is the lack of depth around those top horses: while Mr Stunning was the only 120-plus rated horse in 2017, a season seen as a transition period between generations, a further 14 horses were rated 118 or higher; last year, only three horses below the 120-plus horses Golden Sixty and Exultant rated at 118 or more. So far in 2022, Golden Sixty is the only Hong Kong horse to rate higher than 120.
The HKJC’s management has moved to try to arrest the decline in quality, which it sees as a short-term problem. Bonuses and a massive prize money boost of 11.5 per-cent for next season were announced in April: big bonuses for PPGs and PPs including a remarkable HK$1 million (AU$180,000) pot for PPs that win in Class Three. And, to help owners purchase PPs, last year, the Club changed the lowest allowable rating on entry to 63 from 68.
“The Club is committed to a long-term strategy of making the necessary investments in our facilities and prize money, as well as providing the right incentives structure to reward owners who invest in the high-quality horses that are the foundation of Hong Kong’s world-class racing,” said an HKJC spokesperson.
If the HKJC’s incentives fail to reverse the current lack of depth in its top races and owners are unable to overcome the issues Fownes highlighted, that ‘world class’ mantra – a worthy handle for Sha Tin’s Group One contests pre-Covid – might ring hollow for a while yet. Either way, patience will be needed.
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