By Hans Ebert

It’s really all about reading the mood of the city. Any city. Who’s prioritising what and trying to figure out where you fit in. In Hong Kong, restaurants, shops and clubs are opening and closing. Consumers demands are forcing them to make their decisions. The old business mantra of “We’re breaking even” makes no sense. Why work to “break even”?

As has been written here many times before, horse racing twice a week is more than enough. It’s an affordable pastime or hobby. A weekend and mid-week break from a city that’s constantly changing. That’s always on the move even when standing still to catch its breath.

One can’t use the word “evolving” as, right here and now, no one knows where anything is heading. There’s a future. But it’s faceless.

Horse racing in Hong Kong is a pleasant diversion. For some, it’s a stress buster. Seeing the thousands of racing uncles and aunties and new arrivals to Hong Kong from around the region creating “communities” in the many strategically located and well managed Off Course Betting Centres is where one can get a ‘feel’ for the heartbeat of the city.

It’s a very different world to a private box at Sha Tin racecourse. Or any of the Members Only venues.

One almost expects to be able to order dim sum in one of these betting centres. It’s going local. It’s good for the soul. A big dish of reality bites without the stuffing. To someone new, visiting one of these betting centres is a bit like exploring the side streets of Hong Kong. Time flies. It’s a journey of discovery. Even if it’s to ask for help to fill out a Six Up ticket.

Yesterday these Off Course Betting Centres were heaving. It was the first day of the new racing season. After almost a two month break, it was time again to make dreams come true. For waiters. Salesmen. Caretakers. Salesgirls. Anyone and everyone who wants to try and better their lives by hitting it big. And what “big” is means different things to different people. It’s why the HKJC offers a buffet of choices for every single consumer group.

A restaurateur finding it tough going mentioned how he couldn’t understand why his business strategy couldn’t be as successful as that of the HKJC. They’re the same, he said. All about choice.

Horse racing belongs to the HKJC. It’s a monopoly. Under this monopoly is football betting. The twice a week Mark Six lottery. But on Sunday, it was all about the horse racing.

For the younger, trendier and more international race goers who view horse racing as a fun on-course experience and meeting place with like minded people, there’s Happy Wednesday. Racing in Sha Tin is not for them. Especially after a late Saturday night. Sunday means a late brunch and most likely an early night. There’s work the next day. Racing at Sha Tin is for the more local consumer. And the traditionalist. Creatures of habit.

When the rising nine year old Triumphant Jewel took out the first race of the season, many of the smaller punters cheered. Those who don’t know a thing about horse racing back everything and everyone new in horse racing. It’s about good fung shui.

Triumphant Jewel might be an old galloper but he doesn’t know that. The win was one for the new team of first season trainer Jimmy Ting having his first ever runner, and the first ride in Hong Kong for South African rider Grant van Niekerk. The fung shui got two thumbs up. The win is one for the history books.

Jimmy Ting is a former jockey. Someone very much part of the team champion local trainer Brian Kan Ping-chee built around him when he reigned supreme during the Eighties. When he was the undisputed Cups King.

Brian Kan was the first Chinese trainer to retain a South African jockey. Bart Leisher.

The Babe- Brent Thomson rode for him. And so did Jimmy Ting.

Controversial. Colourful. Powerful. Call him what you will. But to longtime local racing fans with memories of Hong Kong as a British colony, Brian Kan is a hero. Always been his own man. Someone who played by the rules by breaking them. An astute judge with friends in high places.

So when he turned up at Sha Tin yesterday to congratulate his former protege, it showed great “face”. “Face” and good fung shui. They go together like chow and fan.

The second race on Sunday was won by another South African- former champion Hong Kong jockey Douglas Whyte- before the Zac Attack made his move. The Aussie rider and current champion Hong Kong jockey steamrolled over the opposition by riding a couple of winners including taking out the HKSAR Chief Executive’s Cup and coming close in others. It was expected. The Jockey Challenge was suspended. It was expected. Who was there to offer him any competition?

Well, just when that question seemed rhetorical, there was a small glimmer of hope. His name?Grant van Niekerk. To be frank, some in South Africa questioned the 27 year old receiving the call up from the HKJC. “Scattered but very talented” was how he was described by some back in his homeland. We’ll say, talented and with that drive to succeed. To make the most of this opportunity.

One of two new riders in Hong Kong this season, both from South Africa, most were siding with Callan Murray as the one to hit the ground running. He’d ridden here before. He had some success. He’s likeable and knows the lay of the land. But racing’s a funny game. The script keeps changing.

Apart from winning the first race of the new season with his first ride in Hong Kong, Grant van Niekerk showed this was no fluke. He bookended the meeting with a very very strong ride to win the last.

This was on World Record for another South African- trainer Tony Millard.

More importantly, he had beaten Neil Callan aka Iron Man. Not the easiest jockey to beat in a finish. But he did. Iron Man looked more like the Tin Man caught in the slips as van Niekerk flew down the outside to nab the race favourite. It’s been a great start. What matters now is to keep the momentum going.

As for the first race meeting of the new season? For what was a dress rehearsal for much bigger things to come, it might not have been a black tie affair. But it wasn’t an afternoon of jeans and t-shirts either. Things were shaken, not stirred. It’s exactly what was needed.

#HKracing #horseracing #GrantvanNiekerk #ZacPurton