Macau may be the world’s richest casino market, but the capital of horseracing in Asia is right where it’s always been, just 40 miles to the east across the Pearl River Delta in bustling Hong Kong.
The start of the Lunar New Year in February ushered in the “Year of the Horse” in the traditional Chinese calendar, and it proved prophetic for the venerable Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has just come off its best season ever, posting record handle of HK$101.83 billion (US$13 billion), an increase of 8.5 percent over 2012-13.
The “most remarkable and notable season in our 130-year history” is how Chief Executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges described the nine months of racing that concluded 6 July and saw attendance exceed two million for the second consecutive year.
“Along with the outstanding achievements of our top horses at home and overseas, and the huge success of the 35th Asian Racing Conference here, we have seen the status of the sport in Hong Kong rise to a new height,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges.
Good things clearly were in the offing when nearly 100,000 fans turned out at Sha Tin and Happy Valley on 2 February 2014 for the popular race day that kicks off the New Year. Sha Tin drew 90,000 to cheer on British-bred Akeed Mofeed, under Douglas Whyte, as the 5-year-old added the Centenary Vase to the Longines Hong Kong Cup he captured in December at Sha Tin’s International Races Day.
“With the great weather, a large array of special activities on course, and some very exciting and competitive racing, a total of 98,149 people chose to celebrate at both racecourses,” said Engelbrecht-Bresges. “We set ourselves a target of 90,000 people at Sha Tin and we achieved that.”
Turnover that first day hit an impressive HK$1.51 billion (US$194.7 million), but the club’s top executive insisted that was secondary. “It’s about people enjoying the sport and the activities we have here at the racecourse.”
It paid off in 2012-13 in record handle of HK$93.8 billion (US$12.1 billion), a 9 percent increase year on year. More than two million people attended the season’s 83 races, the club’s best since 1996-97, the last year of the colonial era.
“I think it is not by luck,” Engelbrecht-Bresges noted when the 2013-14 results came in. “We had a very clear strategy that we had to invest, that we had to understand our customers better, and with this strategy and the significant investment we have made, we have been able to achieve this remarkable result.”
But for now the stewards of one of racing proudest traditions are content to celebrate what the “Year of the Horse” has carried to the finish line. A crowd of almost 35,000 turned out at Sha Tin to witness the season finale earlier this month. Total attendance on closing day, including Happy Valley, was 38,680. The combined handle at both courses was HK$1.77 billion, the highest single day of wagering in 17 years.
“Without doubt this has been the greatest season in the history of Hong Kong racing, both domestically and internationally,” said Executive Director Bill Nader, an American who arrived back in 2007 after 12 years as chief operating officer of the New York Racing Association.
“For a little place we pack a big punch,” he said, “and I think the whole world understands that now.”
The 2014-15 season begins on 14 September 2014.