Hong Kong’s thoroughbred industry continues to attract the best and brightest of world racing. The globe’s elite assemble for the International Races each December, and throughout the year, racing at Happy Valley and Sha Tin is top quality, and importantly, great for punters.
What’s all the fuss, what happens in Hong Kong, how do you bet, and where do you start?
Hong Kong racing: A Background
Two Tracks – Sha Tin and Happy Valley
Happy Valley is the older, quirkier track in Hong Kong, and is right in the middle of towering Hong Kong proper. A marvel among skyscrapers – like a race track in Hyde Park in Sydney – the race track was rebuilt in 1995 with a capacity of 55,000. It’s considered a world-class horse racing facility.
Races in Happy Valley usually take place on Wednesday nights (known as Happy Wednesdays), and are more atmospheric and somewhat of a tourist scene than Sha Tin. Expect a party.
Happy Valley Racecourse is a small track with tight turns, which means that it is best suited to front runners or on pace horses, with punter closely examining fields pre-race for speed.
Happy Valley can be raced with the rail in a number of different positions. The home straight is 312m in the ‘A’ position, or 335m in the ‘C+3’ position, with a variety of other positions in between regularly in play given the course is raced on so regularly.
In 2014/15, Happy Valley was closed for two months and held just one Sunday race programme, and 30 night fixtures. It usually holds two Sundays and 35 night fixtures.
Sha Tin, in the New Territories, was built in 1978 and has been upgraded through the years to now seat 85,000. It’s the larger of the two tracks, more modern, and conducts around 60 per cent of races per season, the majority of these on Sundays, during the afternoon.
There are two tracks that races are run on at Sha Tin – the turf track of 1899m with a 430m straight, and the All Weather Track on the inside, of 1560 metre circumference and a 380m straight. Race meetings can have races on both surfaces.
All Group 1s are held at Sha Tin, including the Hong Kong International races, given it is more of a traditional oval track with less bias.
Comparing the two tracks, the rated table of par times shows the 1200m course at Sha Tin is four-tenths of a second faster than 1200m at Happy Valley. Knowing the differences in speeds between the two tracks is important for comparing speed figures.
All horses are stabled at Sha Tin.
Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC)
Racing in Hong Kong is run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club – and when we say run by, we mean it. The HKJC, established in 1884, has become a legal monopoly. Gambling was regulated via a Gambling Ordinance in 1977 to legalise and control wagering in Hong Kong. It is really the only game in town. It is hugely influential across seemingly unrelated parts of Hong Kong life.
To be a board member of the HKJC, you must be hold a prestigious position (read: wealth, connection to government, and business experience) in Hong Kong society. It is a coveted position, and carries with it both status and responsibility.
The current Chairman, elected on September 11 in 2014, is Dr Simon Ip, an influential solicitor and racing supporter, and owner.
Former chairmen include Brian Stevenson, the long time president of Hong Kong Rugby Union, and Ronald Arculli, the owner of Red Cadeaux.
The HKJC CEO is Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges who has held that position since being appointed by the board in 2007. Mr Engelbrecht-Bresges joined the Club in 1998 as Director of Racing and was appointed Executive Director, Racing in 2000, and has played a key role in building Hong Kong racing to world-class standards.
He leads a progressive jurisdiction and holds a position of significant racing administrator influence.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club also controls betting, both on-track, online and off-track. Any other bookmaking is illegal – you can only legally wager with the HKJC. Illegal bookmaking does exist, although large organisations are regularly cracked down on.
The full-form details, veterinary updates and trackwork updates are from the HKJC.
The HKJC also employ all veterinarians, as well as stablehands, known as mafoos.
A trainer cannot bring in staff – he or she must rely on the allocated staff from the HKJC.
In short, the HKJC run both tracks and lay down the laws with strict penalties for the protection of integrity.
Interestingly, the HKJC is also a not-for-profit. The club pour any profits back into racing endeavours, as well as charity, with donations in 2013/14 reaching a record HK$3.6 billion or some $AUD600 million.
Membership into the Jockey Club is rigid. No amount of money is supposed to be able to exert influence. Instead, membership is via an introduction and voting by a group of 200 members.
The club employs some 24,800 full-time and part-time staff.
The club takes three weeks of July and the entire month of August as a break from racing – a concept very foreign to most jurisdictions – giving most players in the industry a shared break.
The mafoos continue to care for the vast majority of horses that are stabled in the unusual multi-storey stables that stack the stables high above the Sha Tin track.
The coming season 2015/16 will host 83 meetings. The first is on Sunday, September 6, with the last meeting Sunday July 10.
Attending the races
Entrance fees to the track represent value. The Hong Kong Jockey Club charge just HK$10 ($AUD1.70) to attend the public areas of both racecourses which include the public stands, betting hall and restaurants.
Tourists can gain entrance into the Members’ Enclosure area by purchasing a Tourist Badge, which costs HK$130 ($AUD22) on normal race days or for HK$190 ($AUD32) on major race days.
The trackside Beer Garden at Happy Valley is a go-to for tourists, and the $AUD14 admission includes two glasses of beer and a skewer or hotdog.
There are more exclusive areas for those willing to pay.
The entrance fees at the bottom tier are like few in the world, encouraging large attendances from all walks of life.
Hong Kong’s mix of metric and imperial measurements
The jurisdiction has some odd features – while measurements are generally metric, including race distances, some imperial measures hang-on.
These imperial figures include the crucial handicapping weights for horses, as well as actual horse weight, which are all provided in the form guides.
The maximum handicap for horses is 133 lbs – or 60.3kg, while the minimum weight is 113 lbs – or 51.3 kgs – meaning a nine-kilogram swing between top and bottom is possible in handicap races, more than in Australia.
Hong Kong horses: bought, not bred – and owned by a minority of rich connections
There is no breeding industry in the world’s most vertical and land-poor city – an obvious solution to the problem of not having a natural environment to support one. All horses are therefore brought from overseas breeding locations like Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland, France and the USA.
Around 1200 horses are in training in Hong Kong at any one time. The horses are worked on the track daily. The focus is on speed and short distance racing as opposed to distance staying tests and stamina.
The fact that there is no breeding industry means that the focus for owners is on winning, rather than life at stud off the track.
That means around 95% of horses are male and race as geldings given that they have limited value as stallions.
That percentage is slowly changing given the potential sire values of top horses. The majority-gelding population race for as long as they are able, promoting much-loved horses, and top-level rivalries that can last multiple seasons.
Very few mares or fillies are given a chance in Hong Kong.
Given that most horses are brought over as proven or strong prospects of being a proven performer, there are few races for two and three-year old horses, unlike Australian racing. Three year-olds race against open class horses.
Similar to Australian racing is that there are few distance races. The maximum distance raced is 2400m, but in reality, races are rarely run at 2000m or further.
A curiosity for English-speakers is the names chosen for racehorses. Many include Chinese words of luck and fortune. For example, 21 active horses have ‘Happy’ in their name, 24 include the word ‘Star’, and at least 20 active horses are called ‘Lucky (something)’ including well-known sprinter Lucky Nine, who toured Australia and was beaten a nose for the Group 1 Manikato Stakes at Moonee Valley in 2013.
Hong Kong trainers
The HKJC has 24 trainers licensed, with a maximum of 60 horses each. Trainers deemed to be up to the class of Hong Kong are invited to join and compete. The best are adored by punters and invited to stay.
Those that don’t win enough races are thanked and wished well in their future endeavours.
Many trainers have won multiple Group 1 races across the world before being invited.
The most well known trainer in Hong Kong is Australian expat John Moore, who has trained the most ever winners, while another Australian trainer, John Size, has won six Trainer’s Premierships since 2001.
Overseas trainers are invited to run horses on a temporary basis, with many top-level Australian horses competing in the big Group 1s over the years.
The Trainer’s Premiership is hotly contested and closely followed.
Hong Kong jockeys
Jockeys are invited to participate by the HKJC, and are proven horseman from around the globe. Jockeys aim to compete for glory and winnings as well as the most number of wins in a season in the Jockey Championship. There is no hard limit on the number of jockeys, with the figure changing by the season.
Australian jockey Zac Purton was the Jockey Champion in the 2013/14 season, beating ‘Magic Man’ Joao Moreira to the crown. South African Douglas Whyte has been the perennial champion before this, winning every year from 2000/01 until Purton stole the mantle. Moreira is set to win the 2014/15 season with a new benchmark in Hong Kong racing, after easily surpassing Douglas Whyte’s previous all-time high of 114 wins in a season.
A recent article by Alan Aitken in the South China Morning Post highlighted the difficulties the HKJC face in attracting ‘perfect’ jockeys.
Purton, Moreira and Whyte dominate the season, and will together take close to half of the possible wins. Owners and trainers know these men and their successes. Breaking into the club to ride top chances isn’t easy, even with the handicap conditions in play across races.
A leading domestic jockey from another jurisdiction will need to sacrifice his status in his state or city, and forge a new start, fighting for a smaller proportion of genuine winning hopes. Leaving a young family or bringing them over to adapt to a foreign country where space is at a premium, rents are high, and the culture very different, is not easy.
Young jockeys don’t have the long list of success that the HKJC want to read before inviting a rider over, but they are the ones more likely to look at taking a risk at joining the ranks.
Moreira’s continuing success has led to somewhat of a mortgage on best horses, with punters following his rides as a path to success. Moreira had a strike-rate above 23% at the time of writing and attracts a betting plunge on whichever horse he saddles up.
The Jockey’s Premiership is prestigious and each meeting’s Jockey Challenge is heavily bet on as well.
One more thing to consider what brings both trainers and jockeys to Hong Kong: A flat-tax rate of 16%, across the board.
Hong Kong Integrity
Hong Kong emphasise integrity in horse racing, with all players closely scrutinised by stewards. Horses must pass a drug test to compete in a race. Horses that compete with any prohibited substances face disqualification and stringent bans on trainers and connections.
Winners are further tested, while stewards can test any horse at random as well.
In the last 10 years, a rate of six per 10,000 or 0.06% of samples have returned a positive – five times below the world average.
A system where only Jockey Club vets are allowed to treat horses, and where injuries, illnesses, and treatments are put on the public record also exists for furthering integrity.
Race meetings are supervised by a panel of racing stewards who closely monitor the running of each race and any possible breach of the racing rules by jockeys.
A video system provides instant replays of every part of the race from nine different angles, in a video-playback room where jockeys are interviewed during inquiries.
Steward reports are detailed, with all runners scrutinised – none more so than a hot favourite failing to perform.
Sha Tin also has a state-of-the-art racing laboratory used for testing biological samples for prohibited substances – a vital component to ensure racing integrity. It is just one of only five laboratories recognised worldwide by the International Equestrian Federation (IEF) and the only one in Asia.
Indeed, Australia sends samples to Hong Kong for certain tests including testing for cobalt.
Hong Kong is referred to as one of the strictest horse racing jurisdictions in the world. Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) is occasionally involved in racing matters – and a number of major inquiries and sentences have been handed out over the years.
Hong Kong was seen to have minimal integrity during the early 1970s and 1980s. A series of appointments and measures to tackle integrity issues over the years had led to a vast shift in that opinion. It is now considered a leader.
The gleam of integrity is bright from Hong Kong, but few would consider any racing jurisdiction completely devoid of corruption. Wherever betting and huge flows of money exist, corruption will follow.
Illegal bookmaking is one problem, where bets are made outside of careful scrutiny. Other scandals have included bribery and doping.
Punting on Hong Kong racing
How Hong Kong racing operates
Hong Kong racing is predominantly handicap races, and are rated by a class system. Stakes races are also handicaps, including all Group 3s and two of the four Group 2s, while the rest are set weights and penalties based.
Class racing is based on a numbered scale, which associates every horse with a rating on a sliding scale.
The higher the rating, the better the quality of horse; for example, a horse with a 44 rating is rated as having far less ability than a runner rated 71, while an 102 rated horse is better again. Ratings improve or deteriorate after each run.
Savvy trainers aim to beat the handicap by racing against similar class horses without a big impost, and generally ensuring their horses are racing in the right grade. Not all horses suit a progression upwards. More important than winning a single prestigious race is amounting winners at as many meetings as possible.
Able Friend is Hong Kong’s highest-ever rated active horse, at 134, followed by Designs on Rome (132), Gold-Fun (130) and Military Attack (129).
Class races are numbered – with Class 1 and Premier class races the highest quality, while Class 5 races feature the lowest rated horses. Class 3 events fall into the middle.
Race Class Upper Rating LimitPremier Class – Class 1 120 Class 2 100 Class 3 80 Class 4 60 Class 5 40 Griffin –
Griffin racing is Hong Kong’s way of racing first-starters and maidens together. A Griffin is defined as a horse that is imported to Hong Kong unraced. These horses tend to be two-year olds from the Southern Hemisphere (Spring between September and November) or three-year olds from the Northern Hemisphere (Spring between March and May).
While this happens more rarely, the Jockey Club itself also purchases unraced horses for auction.
A winner of two Griffin races is allocated a rating immediately to compete in Class races.
The best horses progress through Classes to make Pattern races – internationally recognised races at Group level. A horse rated 95 or higher can compete in Hong Kong Pattern races, with the best horses competing in Group 1, 2 and 3 races.
Hong Kong contests different types of Group races – Hong Kong Group 1s and International Group 1s. HKG1s are open to locally-trained horses. International Group 1s are open to all horses.
There are five Hong Kong Group 1s, and 10 International Group 1s in the current season, with the Asian Pattern Committee continually reviewing races each season to elevate (or drop) races based on the quality of the race participants.
Australia has 72 Group 1s, by comparison, under the Asian Pattern Committee’s rules.
Akeed Mofeed under Douglas Whyte edges Tokei Halo to win the Hong Kong Cup. (Supplied)
Hong Kong’s best racing: The International Group 1 events in December
For those looking to see the best racing Hong Kong has to offer, it is undoubtedly the mid-December International Group 1s which include the Hong Kong Cup (2000m), Hong Kong Mile (1600m), Hong Kong Vase (2400m) and Hong Kong Sprint (1200m). Each race is prestigious and top-rated horses the world over compete in each race. 40-50 international horses may seek to win the lucrative and attractive races.
Given the proximity to Australia’s best racing, Melbourne Cup winning and Spring Carnival form horses often compete in the Cup or Vase. Dunaden won the 2011 Hong Kong Vase after winning the 2011 Melbourne Cup, for example.
While Flemington’s Spring Racing Carnival across four days of racing include Derby Day, Melbourne Cup Day and Oaks Day is considered one of the best in the world, the best individual day of racing anywhere in the world is hotly contested.
Hong Kong likes to lay claim – especially in recent times, following the commencement of sponsorship to boost prizemoney from Cathay Pacific in 2003, now with Longines.
However, the best of the best don’t often travel to Sha Tin, regardless of the money or allowances for travel offered.
December races are an after-thought for Australians, who’d mostly rather win around September-November, and Europeans deem to track too firm. The strict drug rules mean American horses won’t compete either.
Money: Hong Kong dollars / Australian dollars
All money, including odds and prizemoney, is in Hong Kong dollars. Even with a population of 93% Chinese people, the Chinese Yuan is not used. (1 Chinese Yuan equals around 1.25 Hong Kong dollars)
The Aussie buys around HK$6. (The rate has fluctuated between a low of just HK$5 during the global financial crisis to a high of nearly HK$8.50).
Hong Kong itself is not known as being a cheap destination in itself. A half-litre beer will cost around HK$31 – so roughly AUD$5.
The Hong Kong dollar is exposed to fluctuations with other currencies, including the Australian dollar.
Why does this matter? Betting with a local bookmaker won’t change your odds or your winnings, but if you are betting with the HKJC, fluctuations in forex might reduce your winnings (or increase them, if you’re game)!
Punting in Australia via the tote: what commingling means
Nearly all bookmakers in Australia, and the totes, offer odds on Hong Kong racing.
Importantly, the Victorian TAB pools are commingled with the Hong Kong Jockey Club pools, which are further shared with Singapore, the USA, Macau, and New Zealand.
What does that mean? Massive pools and huge liquidity to bet into.
For example, a randomly chosen race from a Saturday, February 21st at Sha Tin had a win pool of more than $7.7m, compared to the NSW TAB’s pool of just $44k.
This does lead to big fluctuations in dividends. While individual results may favour the smaller NSW pool at times, most punters prefer a larger pool to potentially take advantage of.
Importantly, Hong Kong punters favour both the quinella, and duets (called a ‘Quinella Place’ in Hong Kong). This involves picking two places out of the top three, in any order. These pools can hold upwards of 10x for a standard race of what an Australian pool might carry for a standard race.
The VIC TAB has higher take-out rates for commingled pools, meaning a punter’s investment of $1 on a trifecta in Hong Kong has 25c coming straight out. That 25c, of course, is carved up by Tabcorp shareholders, the racing industry, the HKJC, and the government, although that exact split isn’t known.
The NSW TAB does not commingle. While it would appear to be a matter of time, in 2014, Racing NSW CEO Peter V’landys said he was waiting to see the results of commingling, given the additional costs.
“It would be financial lunacy to sign up for something that would effectively cost us money,” V’landys told Fairfax. “We would like to see if it would grow our industry.”
There are some problems with commingled pools beyond take-out rates. Illegal bookmakers operating in and out of Hong Kong can bet large amounts at once into HKJC pools, and may vastly reduce the odds of runners moments before the jump. This carries across to Victorian dividends.
Non-commingled pools, such as NSW, don’t see this fluctuation.
The big advantage of commingling is stability. That’s harder to get with small pools, dwarfed by up to 100 times those of the commingled pools. Even if the non-shared pools show big dividends at times, they won’t if they are seriously bet into by higher-grade punters.
One big Hong Kong bet-type that hasn’t yet been made available is the ‘triple trio’, where punters have to select the first three home in three consecutive races, a quaddie-like arrangement but just for three races instead of four. The triple trio has had up to a $HK100 million jackpot in the recent past.
Betting via corporate bookmakers
Most corporate bookmakers operating in Australia have Hong Kong markets available. Corporates will allow punters greater flexibility in market choices – such as SP betting and mid-tote offerings, however, punters may be frustrated with the hard limits that are placed on bet sizes, or accounts being limited or closed for successful punters. Exotics appear to take the lead from the totes.
(One more point of interest is maximum payouts. As Jason Cornell wrote for The Roar recently, a little know fact is that corporate bookmakers will pay a maximum $50,000 dividend on exotic bets, even for small percentage payouts. Neither the TAB nor UBet via Tatts have this limitation.
What that means, for example, if you had 5% of a $100,000 first-four dividend, the corporate bookmaker will pay a maximum of $50k, or just $2500, instead of the $5000 you were expecting. This halves your payout, although that sort of high dividend is less common.)
Betting direct with HKJC: Eligibility, Rebates, and more
Anyone over the age of 18 can apply to bet online with the HKJC. Opening an account is relatively straight-forward for those in Hong Kong or China, but it’s more difficult for those outside.
To be eligible, you need to be a holder of HSBC / Hang Seng Bank / Bank of China (HK) personal account, set up in Hong Kong. That’s not exactly straight forward for most people.
A call to the Bank of China in Sydney indicated that they can’t set up an account in Hong Kong for you, and couldn’t advise how to do that without contacting the Hong Kong branch.
So why would you go to the trouble?
The HKJC offers a 10 per cent rebate for a range of losing bets that at an amount of HK$10,000 or above. Repeat – 10% rebate.
That’s a bet amount of around AUD$1660 at current exchange rates – out of the range of most casual punters – but it’s hugely significant for bigger punters.
The rebate is key innovation which only a racing jurisdiction that owns and controls its tote can realistically implement.
(The HKJC also controls football betting in Hong Kong.)
Hong Kong Racing: How to back a winner – from the basics to the advanced
The same two approaches that you can take to punting apply in Hong Kong as well: arming yourself with all the information and crunching the form, or looking towards tipsters.
The Form approach
The Hong Kong Jockey Club provide anything from veterinary updates and trackwork updates to full-video replays and analysis. The free form is extensive, and not easy beginners. We’ll explain it below.
One key difficulty is that the HKJC website is a bit of an antique, and isn’t the easiest to navigate without being somewhat familiar. We’re being picky, but if you dig too far some buttons click to empty pages or a non-English page for reasons unclear. And translated pages – while far better than any attempt we could make at Cantonese – occasionally aren’t entirely clear.
The form, also called ‘
The Race Card‘ is available around noon time on:
- Mondays for Wednesday meetings (except special race meetings) and;
- Thursdays for Saturday or Sunday meetings (except special race meetings).
- The associated Horse Body Weight will be included in the Race Card on the same day at around 17:00.
Here are the essential pages which will help for every meeting:
- HKJC Racing homepage
- Easy Form – a lightweight formguide.
- The complete formguide home, with the latest form
- You can view review old results here.
The jockey club also retains all the old formguides, which can be an interesting way to practice your form analysis by running through an old card, and examining the actual results to learn your craft. Results, with video replays, go back as far as the start of the 2013/2014 season.
To find old form-guides you just have to follow the syntax, and modify the date and track identifiers.
For example, this set of number and letters – /20140305/HV/ – represents the race card from 2014, March 5th, at Happy Valley: March 5 2014 Race Card
This race card is from 2015, March 8, at Sha Tin – with the code /20150308/ST/.
To find another card, all you have to do is get a calendar and look at the dates for the Wednesdays and Sundays of the year you’re after – or find a fixtures list for the year – and plug in the code.
Speed Maps are also helpfully provided by the Jockey Club, with commentary.
How to read the form
Hong Kong’s form has some difficulties, with Cantonese characters mixing with English.
The Jockey Club provide a guide to their form when you download a full race programme.
It’s worth spending some time figuring it out – it contains a huge amount of information and more than typical Australian form as it contains horse weights, sectional times and positions, and much more.
Some is self explanatory around track, distance, comments on the run and the like. But some is more cryptic.
Download a PDF explanation, which we’ve sourced from the HKJC. Use it to read the form guide for an upcoming or previous race meeting. (And use plenty of zoom for the tiny writing!)
Finding some help: where to go to get quality opinion.
From the Hong Kong Jockey Club is the Racing To Win programme, a useful free guide shown via the Multimedia Showcase on the HKJC sitehttp://www.hkjc.com/
Hong Kong Race caller Brett Davis (@HKBDavis) and racing journalist and form analyst Clint Hutchison (@Hkhutchi) preview the upcoming card by analysing trackwork, barrier trials, past races. Importantly the pair also interview trainers and jockeys to seek more information first-hand.
The programme is one of the most respected, and while the team can’t find every winner, the programme offers a quality educational background to how Hong Kong operates, as well as general form and betting analysis.
In addition, Jenny Chapman (@jftpaddock) provides mounting yard insight (her segment is known as ‘Jenny From The Paddock’) and her thoughts are well respected. (Her partner is David Price, who runs Price Bloodstock, has amassed more than 400 wins in Hong Kong from his horses and is influential. Price Bloodstock owned Hong Kong champion horse Silent Witness, which won 17 consecutive races in the early 2000s.)
The South China Morning Post offers the most prominent Hong Kong racing editorial publication, in English.
The team, containing a notable Australian presence including The Roar’s own Andrew Hawkins, post news, insight, analysis, tips, and editorial columns. The SCMP as it is known does have a pay-wall which limits you to a certain number of articles in a month, which can be worked around via various methods such as different browsers, browsing incognito or in private, or by simply paying!
There is also a further dedicated paid service that offers full tips and previews. The @SCMPRacingPost Twitter account run by the SCMP staff is worth a follow, too.
Source : http://www.theroar.com.au/2015/07/10/your-complete-guide-to-hong-kong-horse-racing-what-the-fuss-is-all-about/