The 2022-23 season is expected to start at least a week later than normal as the Jockey Club looks for ways to reward its key participants for their sacrifices during Hong Kong’s fifth Covid-19 wave and prevent more big names following Blake Shinn out the door.
The Jockey Club asked a lot of its stars as it fought to keep racing going – preventing them from leaving home except to go to work and from mixing with anyone they didn’t live with for almost three months – and chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges confirmed he is working on giving them an extended holiday.
“I can confirm that we have discussed that we would like to start the season later because I think it’s important that we give people the space and that they can go away and have the time to leave Hong Kong,” he said.
“We are in discussions with government regarding what we want to do in relation to our fixtures and we have to wait for the approval of the government.
“In an ideal world I would have gone for two weeks later but if we condense it too much then we have to look at other implications and it’s more about the race programme. You have to be careful how you stagger the races and you cannot defer the [Hong Kong International Races].
“I can confirm we have the intention to not start in the first week of September but later. I think we can [still have 88 meetings] but we have to live with the fact we won’t have space for contingency meetings and maybe we have to lose one. If we lose one, we will accept that.”
Months of restrictions sapped the life out of many within the Jockey Club’s “racing bubble” and while the clamps have been loosened and things are on the improve, there are many that feel Shinn might not be the only one packing his bags at season’s end.
Shinn announced his departure earlier this month, saying “the mental stress has become too much”, and both expatriate and local jockeys have been hit hard by the mental toll of the lockdown.
Daniel Moor cut short his stint and Vincent Ho Chak-yiu spoke just last week about needing a break but while one senior jockey said “he wouldn’t be surprised” if more riders departed, there is an increasing optimism that most – if not all – of the riding ranks will remain in Hong Kong for next season.
The return to some sort of normality has lifted morale, with jockeys and trainers now allowed to mix with friends outside racing, play sport and head out for lunch and dinner, among other things.
Having owners back on track has injected some much-needed life into race meetings – something multiple jockeys have commented on this week – and things will go up another notch this weekend with members and their companions allowed to return.
There is expected to be up to 3,000 people on track for Sunday’s Sha Tin meeting and it is hoped fans will be back on track sooner rather than later.
Things are finally heading the right way and while maintaining the riding and training ranks ahead of next season – which is likely to start on September 11 – is a top priority, the Jockey Club must also make sure it is prepared should a sixth wave roll in.
The experiences of the past few months won’t be forgotten quickly, you can guarantee that, and the idea of an another extended period in what Shinn described as “jail” will be enough to spell the end for some.
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