Hong Kong shows it has truly arrived as a world racing power

Highland Reel beats Flintshire and Dariyan in last year’s Longines Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin. The 4-year-old, who repeated his victory over Flintshire in last month’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, goes for a Sha Tin repeat on Sunday. Photo: Frank Sorge/Racingfotos.com

A month ago we had the ‘World Championships’ (the Breeders’ Cup). On Sunday, it’s the turn of the ‘World Turf Championships’. While that might be pushing it a little, the Hong Kong International Races - four superb contests worth close on $10 million between them - have certainly attracted some of the best in the business (including a Breeders’ Cup winner) and are a global highlight. This year, though, they also proudly underscore Hong Kong’s now officially agreed status as one of racing’s big guns, as Paul Haigh reports.

The Champions Mile/Chairman’s Sprint Prize meeting at Sha Tin on May 1 marked a milestone for Hong Kong racing - not so much because of the Mile, which is an established race on the international calendar, but because of the Sprint, a newcomer to international G1 status.

The 2016 Chairman’s Sprint Prize was the first of 17 major Hong Kong events to have been added to those open to all-comers since the jurisdiction’s recent elevation to Part 1 of the international Pattern.

Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Pattern may find themselves a little puzzled by this promotion, wondering among other things why, in view of its remarkable progress since international racing first came two and a half decades ago to what was then a British colony, Hong Kong’s promotion to the top table has taken so long.

They might also wonder what the elevation in status means for the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). And, if they have never examined the Pattern and its significance, preferring instead simply to enjoy the great races worldwide to which it has given coherent form, they may ask themselves: “Why Part 1? Why not World Class? Top Tier? Or even Premier League?”

To answer those questions in reverse order: the major racing nations have been designated ‘Part 1’ because that’s what it was decided they should be called when the Pattern first came into being in the early 1980s, and no-one has since taken the trouble to give them a better name. The name refers to the status of races as decided by the Society of International Thoroughbred Auctioneers (SITA). (Acronym fans will be excited to learn there are plenty of them in this article).

Black Type recognition

According to Carl Hamilton, Chairman of the International Grading and Race Planning Committee (IRPAC), it refers to “Part 1 of The Blue Book, which since the 1980s has been used to rate races worldwide for the sales catalogues”.

What the elevation means to Hong Kong is a more interesting question.  The fact that a total of 31 races on the Hong Kong racing calendar are now open to international competition, and the status of those races changed from mere local Group standard to international, means that the winners of those races are now eligible for globally recognised Black Type - and all the increase in value for their winners that implies.

It also means that those races automatically become attractive targets for connections of runners from outside Hong Kong who wish to raise the value of their horses.

Previously there were 14 races that carried the prestigious ‘international’ group designation. These included the four championship events at Sunday’s Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) - the Cup (2000m), the Mile (1600m), the Sprint (1200m) and the Vase (2400m); the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup, almost invariably abbreviated to APQEII, in April, which according to International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) ratings is now the 23rd best race in the world (indeed, no less than 10 of Hong Kong’s G1s are now in the IFHA’s top 100), and the Champions Mile in the first week of May. That’s joint #41, by the way.  

There seems to be some doubt about whether the opening up of the extra 17 races was a necessary precondition for the geographically tiny but economically powerful  jurisdiction’s elevation to Part 1 status, which was announced at the 2016 Asian Racing Conference in January to relatively modest fanfares, or whether the opening up was coincidental. Hamilton favours the word “simultaneous”.

World-class sprinters

Just how powerful Hong Kong has become is revealed by the now oft-quoted statistic that the not-exactly-city-state has, since 2011, had a higher annual betting turnover on its 83 races than all the races in the U.S. put together. And the gap between the two handles is still widening.

Hamilton describes the benefits of elevation as “really just recognition by SITA of the status of a country’s major races”.

But might there disadvantages to the, let’s say, concomitant open-door policy?

Some Hong Kong pessimists feared the move towards internationalisation might leave their best races vulnerable to plunderers from abroad. The fears were mainly for Hong Kong’s middle-distance races as the world class of Hong Kong sprinters is already an international given.

The 2,000m APQEII on April 24 was not the first test of the internationalisation policy, as the race had been open since the turn of the millennium, and various invaders had already taken healthy bites. But Japan, Hong Kong’s formidable racing neighbour to the north, which has gobbled up more than a fair share of APQEIIs since the race became an international G1, sent a strong team of three for this year’s race. They included Tokyo Yushun (Japan Derby) third Satono Crown; Nuovo Record, who’d been beaten only by her compatriot A Shin Hikari in December’s Hong Kong Cup and just two weeks ago won a G3 at Del Mar, and 2015 Japanese Horse of the Year Lovely Day, winner of the 2015 Autumn Tenno Sho (Emperor’s Cup).

On the theory that some of the older Hong Kong defenders might be past their best and that this year’s Hong Kong Derby might not have been a particularly strong one, some of us who thought we were smart reckoned the overall strength of Japanese middle-distance racing would mean the trio were going to provide the trifecta.

International challengers routed

In fact they were absolutely routed by Hong Kong horses, led home by 2016 Hong Kong Derby winner Werther, who finished 4½ lengths  clear of the rest, headed by veteran Military Attack and Blazing Speed.

The clean sweep for Hong Kong horses allayed any fears that the locals might be at the mercy of invaders. It certainly softened any blow to HKJC prestige suffered a week later when Australia’s champion sprinter, Chautauqua, overcame a slow start to swamp the home team in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, and the magnificent Japanese Maurice (potent contender, with Solow, Tepin, Minding and Winx, for the ‘world’s best turf miler’ title) added the Champions Mile to the Hong Kong Mile he’d won five months earlier in the style of a bossy teacher confiscating naughty children’s toys.

There were no real long faces among members of the HKJC executive though, even after the May 1 defeats. How could there be when the best horse in Japan had won one of the G1s, and the best sprinter in Australia had taken the other?

The victories of two overseas champions combined with the emergence of a new Hong Kong champion seemed perfectly appropriate for the first three G1s to be run in Hong Kong since the declaration by the International Cataloguing Standards Book (ICSB) that the “Special Administrative Region” (SAR) of China, even with only seven million inhabitants, really was one of the big boys now.

Not that the elevation means anything much in terms of clout.

Hong Kong and the HKJC already had about as much of that as anyone else: rather more than most when one considers the financial state of some of world racing’s less well organised administrations.

Strategic plan

Where the auctioneers’ rubber stamp on Hong Kong’s status is significant, though, as HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges explained after the Champions/Chairman’s meeting, is that Hong Kong horses (and those that manage to defeat them of course) will now have added value on the international market.

“We were always aiming for the elevation of status as part of our five-year plan,” he said. “And this is part of a longer strategy, a 15-year one, or a 20-year strategic plan if you like, which is to develop a breeding industry based on the HKJC’s (still developing) training centre at Congphua in mainland China.

“So far the vast majority of our horses have been geldings. But we’ve already had one Derby winner, Akeed Mofeed (2013), who was an entire and now stands at stud in Australia. We see the promotion to Part 1 as a means of creating residual value for what we hope will be an increasing number of Hong Kong horses with a breeding future.

“It was a very conscious decision to seek this higher status, and we’d carefully tested the public and members’ views on the idea of keeping the three classic races for 4-year-olds restricted to Hong Kong horses only, while opening a further 17 to international competition.”

Hong Kong is unusual in that its classics are for 4-year-olds, and HKJC members’ agreement to the plan was no doubt conditional on the continued restriction of the classics to locally owned horses, particularly the Hong Kong Derby, which, perhaps even more so than the international races on Sunday, remains the pinnacle of ambition for every HKJC member. Only HKJC members are permitted to own horses in Hong Kong.

Competitive spirit

On the subject of big prizes now apparently being vulnerable to overseas competition, Engelbrecht-Bresges has few qualms.

“Hong Kong has, and always has had, a very competitive spirit, and that should be encouraged,” he said. “Hong Kong is a global place and one that’s all about competition. Hong Kong people are not afraid of it, and I really think this development could be an anchor point for even heavier investment by our owners.”

Besides, he might have added, unlike the main events at the HKIR, the meeting already proclaiming itself ‘The World Turf Championships’, as well as the APQEII, Champions Mile and now the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, the HKJC will not be paying travelling expenses for incoming horses, a precaution that will no doubt serve to make connections of such as Maurice and Chautauqua think twice before attempting to farm prizes for which they are now eligible.

What has Hong Kong gained then from its elevation to Part 1?

“From a racing point of view,” says the HKJC CEO, “we’re already major players. From a branding point of view, this strengthens us and will create a starting point for a breeding industry, which is perhaps the one thing our racing has so far lacked.”

Given the spending power in Hong Kong, the elevation to Part 1 will certainly cause more than a minor upsurge in bloodstock prices, not just in the Asia/Pacific region but worldwide.

The elevation doesn’t give the HKJC any more power than it already possesses. It doesn’t really mean it will be able to throw more weight around at international conferences - even if it wanted to.

It does mean, however, that it’s arrived.

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