When Sha Tin Amphitheater opened on October 7, 1978 – 40 years ago today and, aptly, in the Year of the Horse – it was accepted for its across-the-board track, its abundance backdrop and the continued amplitude of the Shing Mun River which borders the aback straight. For the city-dwelling punter, it offered attenuate amplitude to breathe.
“Most bodies anticipate Hong Kong is all skyscrapers, but out actuality we’re attractive at mountains, and there’s beginning air. It’s home and I’m at ease,” says Hong Kong’s ascendant best jockey, Australian Zac Purton, who has been a citizen of Sha Tin for 11 years.
Sha Tin Amphitheater was opened bristles years afore Purton, 35, was born, and for four decades has resounded to the ample hooves of champions such as Co-Tack, River Verdon, Silent Witness and, added recently, Pakistan Star. Added acclaimed names to accept galloped about the alfresco of Penfold Park – the accessible breadth at the centre of the clue – accept included all-embracing race-winning Hong Kong horses Bullish Luck, Sacred Kingdom, Able Friend and Aerovelocity, with bounded admirers acutely aloof as blessed to acclamation on the runners-up as the winners.
With access costing aloof HK$10, a day at the contest does not appear abundant cheaper than at Sha Tin, and afore every meeting, the crowds are funnelled from the Amphitheater MTR base to appear Fblinking into the blooming expanse, white residential architecture in the ambit giving the arena a abnormally Hong Kong stamp.
All of the city’s racehorses were stabled, acclimatized and accomplished at Sha Tin until August, aback a new training centre opened in the acreage to accommodate Hong Kong antagonism with added accommodation and facilities. Those antagonism at Blessed Valley, Hong Kong’s aboriginal racecourse, are beatific out on chase day and alternate the aforementioned evening. Jockeys, trainers, mafoos and key associates of agents are housed aural the New Territories complex.
Asked for his Sha Tin highlights, Purton cites acceptable the Hong Kong Derby with Luger, in 2015, and the anniversary Longines Hong Kong All-embracing Races, on the added Sunday of anniversary December, which affection four contest and are accessible to Group One horses – the accomplished baronial – from Hong Kong and overseas.
“It’s aback the apple focuses on us and it’s a acceptable time of year. Everybody is in a abundant mood,” he says. “We accept the Sprint [1,200 metres], the Mile [1,600 metres], the Cup [2,000 metres] and the Vase [2,400 metres]. Aftermost year, l aloof bare the Cup to complete the four. I got it with Time Warp, the aftermost allotment of the puzzle. Alone two jockeys afore me accept done that.”
While bunched Blessed Valley Racecourse, with its abbreviate 1.09km track, had aback 1846 provided the British antecedents with the electric adventure of horses charging by about aing abundant to touch, it had accomplished accommodation by the mid-1960s and there was the added botheration of austere cartage bottleneck in a built-up burghal breadth on chase days.
Sha Tin Amphitheater was advised to booty the action in the antecedents to a new level, abacus three advance – a 1.9km accommodation clue surrounding an all-weather clue and a beach training clue – as able-bodied as a stabling circuitous to initially accommodate 500 horses, agents abode and parking facilities. Actuality able to ride at both Blessed Valley and Sha Tin, Purton counts himself advantageous to accept enjoyed “the best of both worlds”.
“I acquisition Blessed Valley a fun clue to ride beneath lights. There’s already a afterglow about it. It’s agitative because it’s so bound and tactical. Luck plays a big role there,” says Purton, admitting at Sha Tin Racecourse, “with a best beeline and wide, sweeping turns, it takes a bigger affection beastly to be able to win.”
“What would antagonism be afterwards Sha Tin?” reflects Hong Kong Jockey Club arch controlling Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. Its full-size track, able of hosting all-embracing races, has accustomed Hong Kong to become a world-class centre for horse racing. Neatly appointed geographically amid the acceptable antagonism jurisdictions of Australia, Dubai, Japan and Europe, “we accept the all-embracing access to accomplish this a antagonism hub,” he says. “Without Sha Tin, this would not accept been possible.”
Indeed, over the accomplished decade, Hong Kong has accomplished a college admeasurement of Group One horses than anywhere else.
It is all a far cry from the 1960s, aback race-fixing scandals prompted what was afresh the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club to abet a aitionist apple-pie up. Its aboriginal above development came in 1971, aback antagonism in the city, previously an abecedarian affair, became professional, which meant thoroughly policed contest and a revamped action system. Alone thoroughbreds could be raced, and alone able jockeys and trainers would be employed.
It was at this point – and with an eye on approaching acquirement – that the government accepted permission for Sha Tin Amphitheater to be built. In March 1971, 930,000 aboveboard metres of Tide Cove, at the aperture of the Shing Mun River, was appropriate for reclamation as allotment of affairs for Sha Tin New Town. In October of that year, Sir David Trench, in his aftermost act as governor, accustomed in assumption the architecture of a amphitheater there, initially advised to serve amid 35,000 and 50,000 spectators.
“Sha Tin will ultimately accompany the best accessible antagonism in the world,” Jockey Club administrator John Saunders told the South China Morning Post in 1971. It was a adventurous affirmation accustomed that able antagonism was almost beneath way in the colony, and the advance itself was yet to be conjured from the sea.
An official ambitious for what would become a HK$700 actor activity followed in 1972 and, by December 1973, 70 actor tonnes of gravel, clay and beach began authoritative their way from hillsides beyond Tai Po Alley to the 245 acreage of seabed that were to be reclaimed. “Day afterwards day, lorries rumbled endlessly to this acreage at the amount of one lorry every 13 seconds,” the Post appear at the time, as the 140-foot-deep foundations were created.
The active force abaft the planning and architecture of the amphitheater – advised by Leigh & Orange, an architectural close founded in Hong Kong in 1874 – was Major-General Bernard Penfold, afresh accepted administrator of the Jockey Club. Penfold, who had spent 36 years in the British Army, in India and Africa, chose a date in 1978 for its unveiling, to accompany with the aperture of alley and abuse links, the Added Lion Rock Tunnel and the Amphitheater MTR station.
On October 7, 1978, afterwards governor Murray MacLehose cut the ribbon, Silver Lining, ridden by American jockey Bill Hartack, won the countdown Sha Tin Trophy.
In the aboriginal two decades afterward Sha Tin’s opening, Jockey Club action was to buy abiding macho geldings that would fit into the levelling affliction system. It had been absitively that bringing in bigger horses ability upset the aggressive balance, although some 18-carat stars did appear – such as the rather plain-looking Co-Tack, who reigned absolute in the 80s.
Nevertheless, the Jockey Club admiring the world’s arch riders, including England’s Lester Piggott, Willie Carson of Scotland, Frenchman Yves-Saint Martin and Gianfranco Dettori, ancestor of Italian fable Frankie Dettori, who afterwards additionally came to ride in Hong Kong. Some accustomed on contracts, others took allotment in appropriate contest by invitation.
“Everything was fast and aciculate [at Sha Tin],” recalls jockey Gérald Mossé, who came to Hong Kong from France in 1990 at the appeal of French-born trainer Patrick Biancone. “Hong Kong, it absolutely bigger the way I ride. It’s a mix of American and European [riding styles].”
Mossé, now 51, won all of the city’s above races, some several times, but in accurate recalls his 2003 celebration at Sha Tin in the Hong Kong Derby, on Elegant Fashion, a attenuate filly amid the geldings.
“This was one of the acceptable ones,” he says. “I would like to ride in Hong Kong afresh and alike to train.”
Sha Tin has had its fair allotment of race-fixing and doping scandals over the years. A attract through newspapers reveals a cardinal of aurora raids by badge that led to the end of added than one antagonism career. One colourful adventure was “shampoo-gate”, in 2003, aback trainer Ivan Allan was accused of application a banned biologic on a racehorse due to run at Sha Tin. The Post appear that Cheers Hong Kong had activated absolute for “osmotic diuretic Isosorbide afore he was aching from the Hong Kong Gold Cup on February 23”.
Allan, who was austere in court, criticised the Jockey Club’s afresh arch vet, Keith Watkins, saying, “Sadly, he did not apperceive that the diuretic was spelt S-H-A-M-P-O-O and advisedly administered by his department.”
The cachet of contest at Sha Tin was gradually upgraded amid 1993 and 2000, from Group Three, the everyman baronial for accustomed races, to Group One, the accomplished akin of competition, alive with all-around authoritative anatomy the All-embracing Cataloguing Standards Committee, allotment of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA).
“The axis point, not alone in action about-face but in the affection of the sport, was amid 1998 and 2000,” says Engelbrecht-Bresges, who as vice-chairman of the IFHA and administrator of the Asian Antagonism Federation has been a axial amount in adopting the contour of Hong Kong racing. “We developed a eyes that we capital to become one of the arch antagonism authorities in the world.”
Earlier efforts by Alan Li Fook-sum as Jockey Club chairman to advancement the affection of the horses brought to Hong Kong, actualize a adapt for all-embracing antagonism and advance connections beyond – as able-bodied as trainer Allan’s acknowledged targeting of beyond contest with top bounded horses such as Oriental Express and Indigenous in the aboriginal 90s – had already helped accompany austere all-around absorption to Hong Kong racing.
The aboriginal Hong Kong horse to accomplish an all-embracing impact, though, was Triple Crown champ River Verdon, endemic by above Jockey Club administrator Ronald Arculli, who grew up about Blessed Valley, and the backward advocate Sir Oswald Cheung. Accepting won the Hong Kong Derby and the Allurement Cup in 1991 – and aloof about every added calm chase abounding times – River Verdon blazed a aisle that year, acceptable the aboriginal bounded horse to chase abroad. The afterward year he became the aboriginal Hong Kong horse to booty allotment in a Group One chase overseas, finishing in a admirable third abode at the Arlington Million, in the US.
In 2000, addition Allan champion, Fairy King Prawn, became the aboriginal Hong Kong champ of Japan’s arch mile race, the Yasuda Kinen, with a backward run.
But it was the accession of Silent Witness from Australia, in 2002, that absolutely put Hong Kong antagonism on the apple map. Silent Witness afflicted with 17 beeline wins at Sha Tin amid 2003 and 2005 and was called the world’s fastest sprinter. South African jockey Felix Coetzee, who rode the horse in those contest – and who, as arch benumbed adviser for the Jockey Club’s amateur jockeys, is generally based at Sha Tin – says that Silent Witness was appropriate and knew it.
“He had an ambience about him, and it was absolutely a best appropriate privilege,” says Coetzee of benumbed the champion. “In the starting gates, he consistently had the aforementioned routine. Silent Witness would accord a little arresting [with his head] and I had to accord him his arch loosely.” By abatement up on the bridle, the horse could be aboriginal out of the gates.
Named by Time anniversary as one of the “people” who mattered best globally in 2004, Silent Witness now lives in retirement in Australia, but a bronze of the horse and Coetzee sits at the access to Sha Tin Racecourse.
Another South African to accept larboard his brand on Hong Kong antagonism is Douglas Whyte, accepting been best jockey for 13 afterwards years from 2001, alone to be baffled by Purton in the 2013-14 season.
As for bounded jockeys, Amy Chan Lim-chee, antagonism aptitude development administrator and headmistress of the Amateur Jockeys’ School at Sha Tin Racecourse, says that the Hong Kong jockeys of today accept a decidedly bigger education than their predecessors did.
“We accept classes in sports science, biomechanics, sports attitude and nutrition,” Chan says. “The jockeys who accept already anesthetized through our arrangement accept done well. Derek Leung [Ka-chun] and Matthew Chadwick … Added recently, Matthew Poon [Ming-fai] has 61 wins. Bodies consistently adopt expat jockeys – they acclimated to say that bounded jockeys were characterless – but I anticipate there is a levelling out.”
Just as Blessed Valley did in the 60s, Sha Tin Racecourse accomplished the banned of its development some years ago. Its abiding barrio are in charge of repair, training accessories are continued and its horse citizenry has been assuredly capped at about 1,200. While associates of the Hong Kong Jockey Club can administer for horse ownership permits via an anniversary election system, with alone about 350 accountant racehorse owners in Hong Kong the cat-and-mouse account has been long.
These are amid the issues actuality addressed by the Jockey Club’s Conghua Training Centre, a Guangzhou, which clearly opened in August afterwards seven years of planning and construction. Advised to supplement the accessories at Sha Tin, the 150-hectare armpit will accommodate stabling for up to 1,500 horses and a racetrack at its centre. Congenital to advice sustain Hong Kong’s 88 chase canicule with added horses and cutting-edge training, blow and rehabilitation facilities, the centre is accepted to conductor in a new era in Hong Kong antagonism and about 120 added owners permits accept already been issued.
Meanwhile, with Pakistan Star accepting won the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin in April, and afresh accepting backed up the accomplishment with a arch achievement at the venue’s end-of-season Champions & Chater Cup, the Hong Kong accessible accept begin a new equine hero to worship.
As Purton looks out over the amphitheater from his home in Sha Tin, this year’s Hong Kong best jockey reflects on why horse antagonism has brought so abundant amusement to the city. “However abundant you anticipate you apperceive racing,” he says, “when the gates go back, annihilation can happen.”
Heather Adams is the columnist of An A-Z of Hong Kong Horse Antagonism (2011)
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