By Hans Ebert
Visit: www.fasttrack.hk

The news that lightweight Brazilian rider Ruan Maia is leaving Singapore as the Theme From Exodus continues to play on and is heading to Hong Kong on a short term contract isn’t exactly a Jack In The Box surprise.

With almost everyone having jumped off the sinking ship that is the Singapore Turf Club in recent months, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, as it always does, checked out what was still available at the buffet table, and as it did with the low-key hire of controversial former Racing Victoria Steward Terry Bailey, swooped down and picked out Maia.

It wasn’t like the huge coup of luring The Magic Man Joao Moreira to Hong Kong and rolling out the red carpet for his arrival, but with other than Jerry Chau, the current crop of apprentices finding this season very tough going, an experienced lightweight jockey like Maia, who has ridden in Macau and known to some owners, will be of some help to trainers.

This means three Brazilian riders until the end of the season- Vagner Borges, of course, Joao Moreira, and now, Maia- something of a first for Hong Kong racing. The one-time domination of Hong Kong racing by Australian riders is something that’s slowly but surely been reeled in.

The often-mentioned arrival of Vlad Duric to Hong Kong from Singapore never happened. One doubts that this was ever even considered. The Australian remains in Singapore as the city’s reigning champion jockey. But for how much longer?

What’s puzzling is why hearing that the Fat Lady is clearing her throat to sing and signal what sure looks like the end of racing in Singapore is such a surprise to some?

Of course, like every city in the world, the coronavirus has impacted Singapore and many of its plans.

As for its horse racing in the “garden city”, it’s always seemed to lack a sense of leadership and who and what was really “minding the store” and steering the ship.

Perhaps living in Hong Kong and having made regular visits to the Lion City, it was pretty easy to read the tea leaves.

At least for myself, attending the races in Singapore or going racing there was never on the cards.

Arriving at Kranji airport in recent years, one saw billboards advertising the Sands casino in Marina Bay, but nowhere were there any signs of horse racing. Nada. There was zilch marketing. Add to this no race card published in the Straits Times, and with the concierge at the hotel and taxi drivers recoiling in horror when asked about the races and claiming to know nothing about them. It was like asking Manuel a question. Those “I know nutting” moments said much without saying anything.

Of course there’s still horse racing, but it’s relegated to an underground sideshow and with the government having to deal with a necessary evil- for the time being.

This was extremely different to what was talked about excitedly by racing fans in Australasia when plans for racing at Kranji first came on stream.

We’re talking about the late nineties and early 2000 when astute Singapore-based ad man Ian Batey and his Batey Ads were somehow involved in the return of racing in the Lion City. This was after the closure of the racecourse in Bukit Timah in late 1999.

Ian Batey had created the iconic Singapore Girl campaign for Singapore Airlines. He enjoyed his horse racing, was creative, knew how to present ideas and brought Singapore Airlines to the Singapore Turf Club’s sponsorship table. This gave wings for horse racing to take off again, this time at Kranji.

Having moved from advertising to the music industry, I remember meeting up with Ian Batey at a bar where he held court in Boat Quay. His PR agency was involved and Mr Batey had great plans for the launch of racing at Kranji.

This news attracted those in Hong Kong, who, despite waiting for decades, had to first get in the very long queue to become a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Even if this happened, there was the other long waiting list to have a permit to own a horse. In contrast, like Macau, the Singapore Turf Club opened its doors to everyone. Welcome lah…

Other than owners, these included expat jockeys and trainers unable to get into Hong Kong. And though not having the opportunities to make as much money as they would in Hong Kong, Singapore might have come out as a poor second, but it wasn’t a pauper.

This was proven before the Kranji Racecourse was built and racing was held in Bukit Timah. Jockey Kim Clapperton reigned here whereas other racing personalities who passed through this beautiful racecourse at one time or another included names like Ivan Allen, Malcolm Thwaites, Wayne Harris, John Didham, Noel Harris etc.

With its valuable real estate needed for housing, shopping malls etc, racing at Bukit Timah hosted its last race meeting in 1999. The authorities moved racing to Kranji. On March 4, 2000, Kranji Racecourse was opened.

Much was expected and everything looked good for a number of years. Well-known riders and trainers from overseas arrived and stayed and turnover was better than fine.

For some reason, this excitement started to wane and gradually peter out. Whether it had to do with changes within the government or the image of horse racing, no one knows. The stigma of jockeys and trainers being bashed or fired at by gangsters remains. There’s also the question of gambling going against the beliefs of the Muslim religion.

Another thing is that things have happened in dribs and drabs and stops and starts. There’s not been that consistency needed to create confidence in racing’s future.

There’s also the image of Singapore to consider, especially how it’s looked at by many Hongkongers- squeaky clean, rigid, boring and Asia’s “Garden City” that once almost stopped Sir Cliff Richard from entering the city for concerts because of his “long hair”. Please.

Scratch below the surface, however, and Singapore always had a vibrant entertainment scene with clubs like Zouk and everything that was happening down Bugis Street. There was fantastic shopping, brilliant bookstores and a pretty far out nightlife if knowing where to look. There were six star hotels and restaurants and one of the best airports in the world.

There were also strict rules and regulations in place for everything. All this was juxtaposed with the Love For Sale funky town that is Brix. There’s the notorious “Four Floors Of Whores” and the upmarket “high society” services that once operated openly and was dependent on Perth for “product”.

There were the SPGs- Sarong Party Girls looking to feather their nests and those on those expat packages living double lives until marriages crumbled.

All this gave off a whiff of hypocrisy. It’s as if Singapore operated on different levels and was actually some weird upside down fruitcake cake.

Perhaps this and Hong Kong Chinese never warming to much from Singapore- perhaps satay, but not even some very good bands and musicians. The city was fobbed off as being “robotic” and a sterile cuckoo. It had to have a rub off effect on the image of horse racing. And image in anything is everything is what sells or undoes it.

Rightly or wrongly, there was the feeling that racing in Singapore was a sprinter and a squib and not a stayer.

Maybe, it was what it was for when it was for a certain amount of time in the body clock of the world. And now? Now, with everything else that’s happening and things in a locked down mode and very different life priorities, it looks like time’s up for horse racing in the Lion City. It’s lost its roar.

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