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Jockey Club should expand staying programme to enhance elite ranks

A field of 12 in Sunday’s Queen Mother Memorial Cup shows there is an appetite for staying races and it is something the Jockey Club should make a priority as it looks to improve the quality of stock in the city.

It is no secret the elite ranks in Hong Kong are at their lowest point in years and the Jockey Club knows there is a problem with the supply chain with a review being conducted into the situation.

It is getting harder and harder to buy horses out of Australia – typically the main supplier to the city (almost half – 626 of 1,273 – come from Down Under) – with owners asking for exorbitant amounts of money or syndicates refusing to sell.

Most of those horses are sprinter/milers – perfect for what the Hong Kong programme currently has to offer – but that supply line appears to be close to capacity.

It’s time to change things up, to be proactive and search for a market inefficiency.

The Jockey Club should expand the staying programme to encourage owners and trainers to buy horses with stamina, opening up more options from other jurisdictions.

Of the 828 races last season, just three were held over 2,400m (two Group Ones and a Group Three), 11 over 2,200m (five of those were in Class Five) and 19 at 2,000m (including three Group Ones, a Group Two and the Derby). That’s less than 4 per cent.

There are a lot of extremes there and not much middle ground. If you’re a Class Two stayer, there were two races for you at 2,000m, a Class One at the same trip and maybe the Group Three Queen Mother Memorial Cup at 2,400m. Limited options.

A solution is to put a programme of staying races in the right places and then give everyone a 12-month head start so they know what they are working with. There might be some short-term pain with field sizes, but with turnover going gangbusters at the moment, think of it as an investment for the future.

As it stands, the Hong Kong Derby is considered the most prestigious race in the city but most of the contestants can barely run out a strong 2,000m. The early signs from this year’s crop are not promising.

If there was an actual programme for stayers – across all classes – owners could buy young horses who excel at that sort of distance with confidence, knowing there are races that will be suitable however things turn out.

Just as importantly, it opens up options for horses to be sourced from a broader spectrum of countries.

The breeding of the first five horses across the line in the Queen Mother Memorial Cup backs up that theory.

Butterfield is Brazilian, Charity Fun is Irish, Reliable Team is a Kiwi, Packing Waltham is French and Panfield comes from Chile.

Behind Australia, horses bred in New Zealand (331) and Ireland (153) make up the majority of the Hong Kong population but there are some big gaps behind them.

There are just four Brazilian-bred horses here, two from Chile, two from Argentina, 24 from France, 67 from Britain, seven from Germany, two from Italy, nine from Japan and 14 from the USA.

Clearly, some of them are very capable – you only need to look at the overseas horses who successfully raid Sha Tin’s biggest races – so the markets in these countries should be tapped in to more.

Given the buying power of Hong Kong’s owners – and the prize money on offer – securing some of the best young horses from these jurisdictions should be feasible. A lot of them are stayers, so give people a reason to chase them.

There is no quick fix for the lack of talent at the top end in Hong Kong right now.

Some of it is cyclical, some of it is structural, some of it is circumstantial but at the end of the day, even though there are different budgets, every owner wants to have a good horse.

By expanding the range of races on offer, they have more options and, in theory, the quality will improve.

When five of the 12 Group Ones in Hong Kong are held at 2,000m or beyond – as well as the Derby – there should be a programme in place to service those contests properly.

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