”Hong Kong will give you goose bumps.” The declaration came matter-of-factly, in between bites of the excellent Hainan Chicken at the Hyatt’s Grand Café, by Hans Ebert, former Racing B*tch, maestro of Happy Wednesday and long-time Hong Kong belonger.
“It’s the most sophisticated and international city in the world.” Rather than being reassuring, these are words to strike fear into the heart of a South African ‘plaasjaapie’ who is happiest covered in horse hair and associated detritus!
But they say a change is as good as a holiday and it’s fair to say, I needed a break. They also say if you don’t risk the unusual, you settle for the ordinary. As it was coming up to FWD Champions Day, Tuesday, 24 April saw me landing at Hong Kong International muttering carpe diem under my breath.
After checking into my hotel spitting distance from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the first port of call (after the Hong Kong institution that is the Grand Hyatt, of course) – the HKJC’s famous Happy Wednesday experience at Happy Valley.
We arrived early, to allow me to take in the setting, get my bearings and watch the sunset paint the skyscrapers all kinds of beautiful before the city lights took over. We raced from Adrenaline, one of several hospitality options, overlooking the track. The band – who only play together at Adrenaline – were setting up, so there was time to chat and get to know lead vocalists Jennifer Palor and Kel – plus personalised advice from Jennifer Cheung and racing specialist, Winnie Shum to make sure I had everything I needed.
It’s always fun to see old friends in new places and it was great to catch up with former NHA Chief Vet Eugene Reynders (now stationed at Conghua) and jockeys Chad Schofield, Karis Teetan, Grant van Niekerk and Tshwaro Appie – visiting for the evening en route to his new job in Macau. It was my first opportunity to see the likes of Zac Purton, riding with tremendous confidence and composure (sitting on the world’s best does that for you!) who posted a treble on the night, as well as ‘Magic Man’ Joao Moreira. The Beer Garden was buzzing with their Korean night and it was staggering to learn that they see a crowd of around 16,000 through the doors for a mid-week meeting. I had a quick peek at their merchandise stand and not only can you get a plushie, you can even have them personalised with a name of your choice! Finally, to round off the evening, HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges joined us for a post-race drink and chat about the Yearling Sale results, the R9 million sales topper and their purchase out of Cherry On The Top.
If you hang around long enough, one seems to meet EVERYONE in Hong Kong. People seem to gravitate towards the Grand Hyatt’s Champagne bar and my highlights reel included racing legend Brent ‘The Babe’ Thomson (four time winner of the Cox Plate and now part of NZ Bloodstock), Hugh Bowman, the connections of HK Sprint hopeful, Viddora, and the crew from Magic Millions.
A media outing to Sha Tin track work on Saturday morning, delivered Perth Racing Chairman Colin Brown and CEO John Yovich and a chance to shake Joao Moreira by the hand. Oh – and to watch the international horses put through their paces, of course!
Amphitheatre of dreams
After the relative tranquility of Saturday morning, Champions Day with new headline sponsor FWD, saw Sha Tin transformed with red carpets and velvet rope parties and cars and crowds wherever you looked (a queue to get into the racecourse? How marvelous!). My friend Jennifer from Happy Wednesday met me at the door to deliver badges and brochures and I was all set for the day.
The Sha Tin air is thick with South African racing memories. It has been the site for some of our greatest international triumphs starting with London News smashing the track record in the 1997 QEII, all the way through J J The Jet Plane in the 2010 Cathay Pacific Sprint, to Variety Club wiping the floor with the 2014 Hong Kong mile field. And our jockeys have left an equally large legacy. To single out just a few, Felix Coetzee and Silent Witness were Hong Kong legends and Bartie Leisher, Basil Marcus and Robbie Fradd graced the Champion Jockey roster before the 13 year ‘Whyte-wash’ by Douglas from 2001-2014. Hallowed ground indeed.
Pausing by the parade ring, I made the acquaintance of a Japanese racing fan. Despite our language difficulties (although his English was a lot better than my Japanese!), I established that he had come specially to support Lys Gracieaux. I confessed my allegiance to the gorgeous Win Bright, we traded smiles and racing mementos and parted friends.
World’s Best Horses, World’s Best Races
With a card boasting four of the current top 10 World’s Best racehorses in Beauty Generation, Santa Ana Lane, Exultant and Beat The Clock, three of the top 10 jockeys in Oisin Murphy, Hugh Bowman and Zac Purton, as well as Japanese hero Yutaka Take and fan favourite ‘Magic Man’ Joao Moreira, FWD Champion’s Day lived up to its billing.
My racing venue for the day was the Hay Market restaurant on the second floor of the public stand and was quite simply unbelievable. Designed by one of Hong Kong’s top young talents, the venue is as beautiful as it is user friendly. From the food, to the table location to the complimentary iPads pre-loaded with all the day’s racing information, Blue Lee and his team could not have been more attentive. My friend Winnie arrived to guide us through the iPad functions and our form study options as well as giving us a tour to the parade ring and taking us to watch a race from the finish line.
The crowds were fantastic and they were everywhere – poring over their form guides, packing the stands around the parade ring as well as vocally shouting their horses home.
The Chairman’s Sprint Prize was a tactical affair, with Chad Schofield jumping Rattan out smartly to overcome their 8 draw and lead from the rail. Yutaka Take followed the same line, placing Nac Venus on Rattan’s left flank, while Little Giant tracked Rattan on the rail with Moreira slotting Beat The Clock on his outside. Santa Ana Lane was less lucky – with a wall of horses between them and the front runners, Hugh Bowman settled his horse and bided his time. With Chad sending Rattan for home coming out of the bend, the rest of the field had to commit. Vincent Ho and Little Giant kept close order in his slipstream, Moreira pulled outside of Nac Venus to give chase and with the front runners getting away and no gaps in sight, Hugh was out of options on the favourite. He aimed wide and pressed the button. A flying Beat The Clock got his head in front at the 50m mark, with Rattan gritting his teeth to keep second, Little Giant sticking his neck between the two and having clawed his way to within 2.25 lengths, the post came just too soon for the courageous Santa Ana Lane who had to settle for fourth.
Next up was the FWD Champions Mile. I was curious to see what the World No 1 looked like in the flesh and with his pink blinkers, Beauty Generation cut a distinctive figure on parade. However, his raw power can only be fully appreciated in motion and it is, quite simply, relentless. I can say without fear of contradiction that he is the most powerful galloper I’ve seen and Zac Purton had to do little more than stay on his horse to collect a second Champions Mile trophy.
There will always be a debate as to how greatness is measured and despite the murmurs that he has merely been beating the same opposition, Beauty Generation’s achievements are beyond dispute. He is the only horse to achieve 8 wins in a single Hong Kong season and having banked HK$84,770,000 to date, has replaced Viva Pataca as Hong Kong’s all-time leading money earner.
Most pleasing for me is the gloss it adds to Singapore Sling’s second place finish, particularly as the mile is on the sharp side for him. Well done, Team SA!
Glory for Japan
My standout highlight of the day was the FWD QEII Cup. Not only was the first and third result a huge feather in the cap for Japanese breeding, jockey Matsami Matsuoka and trainer Yoshihiro Hatakeyama deserve an avalanche of praise for a raiding masterclass. Not only did they win at their first attempt at Sha Tin, they smashed the track record in the process. Win Bright may be a high quality individual, but is clearly the product of expert handling, and Matsuoka deserves singling out for a beautifully judged ride – the handshake from Oisin Murphy just after the line spoke volumes.
It was a feat of sporting endeavour and the unbridled joy of the post-race celebrations show-cased the shining best of why we pursue this crazy sport. With the racing treadmill occasionally lapsing into the monotonous and predictable, it was good to be reminded.
It was a thrill to join the Millards in the parade ring for the last and support SA runners Cot Campbell, Graceandmercy (formerly Monks Hood) and Seerite Dragon (formerly Seerite) on their Hong Kong debuts. Although none earned a tour of the winner’s enclosure this time round, Grant van Niekerk scored for the home team, flying from the clouds to take the laurels and close the meeting on Flying Thunder. Nice one!
There was just time to take in one more Happy Valley meeting on Wednesday and it was a proudly South African moment watching Aldo Domeyer make a statement debut with two winners from three rides for Tony Millard. Grant van Niekerk also struck with a long shot, bringing the SA tally to 3 – not a bad haul for the notoriously tricky track. It was a festive party, including proud dad Andrew Fortune, that left Happy Valley on Wednesday night.
Racing in Hong Kong is at the top of any fan’s bucket list for a reason. It’s good. It’s very good. And never more so than during the big meetings like Champions Day. But what makes it really special is all the things that go around it – the long lunches at the Grand Café, the drinks at the Champagne bar, old friends and memories revisited and new ones made.
I saw Tony Cruz in the flesh, shook Joao Moreira by the hand, had Brent Thomson as my personal City guide, and watched legends born at Sha Tin. I saw barrier trials, had a tour of David Ferraris’ Olympic Stables and met a real life Pikachu. But perhaps my favourite moment was one shared with my new friend Winnie – a South African and a Canadian, standing side by side on the Sha Tin steps, watching a horse race.
Despite worrying that I might be a fish out of water in one of the most exotic cities in the world, it seems the waters of Victoria Harbour have room for everyone after all.
Cheers, Hong Kong. And thanks for the goose bumps.