It felt like it was a hundred degrees in the shade and there was no shade. Just a few days ago, Typhoon Mangkhut had swept through Hong Kong. Locals told me that it was a lot more humid than typical. I was in Hong Kong after more than 25 years to attend a race day at the Sha Tin racecourse. The very efficient Christine Ng from the Public Affairs Department (Racing) of The Hong Kong Jockey Club had pulled out all the stops to ensure that I was set up with an all-access pass. Hong Kong (undoubtedly, the mecca for horse racing and wagering) was a pit stop for me on my way to India where I grew up, and where I had worked as a professional handicapper for more than a decade (before emigrating to a corporate life in the US).
Attending a day at Sha Tin prompted me to list eight different areas of comparison between Hong Kong racing (which generates the largest horse race gambling turnover in the world) and Indian racing, which, despite great potential, has, so far, failed to do so. The intent is not to be a peanut gallery critic and find fault with the work that is done by the Indian Turf Authorities (most of which are constituted by well-meaning and intelligent race administrators), but instead to shine an encouraging and data-focused spotlight on some areas that Indian Turf Authorities could add to their list of “things to accomplish”.
Area 1 -- Data Availability
Hong Kong – HKJC provides comprehensive and accurate horse racing data on its website well in advance of the race day. This data is made available in a timely and consumable manner. Besides the usual data (such as runners, jockeys, weight, draw etc.), this data also includes the horses` body weight (made available two days in advance), accurate sectional positions, beaten lengths and accurate timings for minimum three and maximum six sections of a race (depending on the trip distance), trackwork details (including videos of recent spurts), Barrier Trials (or Mock Races), swimming details, detailed jockey and trainer profiles and statistics and many other data items that racegoers can use. Additionally, the HKJC partners with the racing public and responds promptly and intelligently when contacted on its Customer Service email (email@example.com).
Area of Improvement -- While the Indian racing clubs have come a long way and now provide basic data on their websites, some areas are still lacking – examples of this include accurate sectional positions, beaten lengths and timings, and early publication of the horses` body weight.
Area 2 -- Race Replays
Hong Kong – The Video replays of races provided by the HKJC include high definition, multi-angle recordings. Horse racing enthusiasts can see a regular (race time) view, a leading horse view and a patrol view (which is a head-on view). Also available are Pass-Through Analysis videos which record the horses as they race past the winning post for about 100 additional meters. HKJC has also partnered with a vendor (Trakus) to provide the Aerial Virtual Replay. This provides in-depth simulated details on how the horses run (in terms of their position from the rails and behind the leaders and their acceleration) over the course of the race.
Area of Improvement -- Indian Clubs have made progress on video coverage (recently RWITC includes camera angles at the Starting Gates), but still have a long way to go to come close to what HKJC offers in this regard. One racing patron who I met while attending an off-course race in Kolkata remarked that ‘the video images that the Royal Calcutta Turf Club provides reminded him of a Doordarshan telecast from decades ago.`
Area 3 -- Jockey Caliber
Hong Kong – HKJC licenses less than 25 jockeys in a season. The bar to qualify to ride in Hong Kong is extremely high. This high-bar combined with the high prize money on offer, leads to a very high caliber of riding in Hong Kong. Jockeys that do not perform at the highest level are monitored carefully and weeded out. Apprentice jockeys are schooled in one of four riding schools. The schools are professionally managed by the Racing Operations and Equestrian Department of The Hong Kong Jockey Club. Apprentice Jockeys are then sent for overseas training in racing centers in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Australia, UK and other top racing centers where they further hone their riding talent and also ride many winners. Consequently, all horses get excellent rides in most races with the difference between the jockey occupying the top of the leaderboard (currently Zac Purton for the 2018-19 season) and the jockeys occupying the bottom 50% of the leaderboard (including Alberto Sanna, Umberto Rispoli, and Neil Callan) being less than a length (in the opinion of this writer).
Area of Improvement -- Indian Turf Clubs can emulate these principles by focusing more on quality than quantity (by re-licensing only those jockeys that continue to be medically fit, and on top of their riding game).
Area 4 -- Trainer Caliber
Hong Kong – The Hong Kong Jockey Club`s Licensing Committee strictly enforces a Trainer`s performance criteria (16 wins in a season that includes about 820 races). Recently, HKJC rejected the application of a trainer (Almond Lee) after he missed the performance criterion for the third time, falling only one short of the 16-win benchmark.
Area of Improvement -- While this may seem like a very strict rule for Indian Turf authorities to emulate (in some modified manner), it would motivate every trainer to try (and be ‘on job`) with all the runners they saddle.
Area 5 -- Racing Integrity
Hong Kong – HKJC enforces racing rules by the book and in the interest of fair racing. Recently, top Australian jockey Nash Rawiller was in the news. The Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption thoroughly investigated allegations that the expatriate Australian jockey received gifts or money in exchange for race tips. He was in custody (yes, as in ‘jail`) in Hong Kong and was recently released. He is awaiting to hear whether he will face charges from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Also, a read of the Racing Incident Reports for a Hong Kong race meeting is always reassuring for the betting public that there is no nonsense allowed as far as fair racing goes. Professionals (trainers and jockeys) are held accountable and questioned when a horse does not run its best race.
Area of Improvement
An unscientific straw poll that I recently conducted at a race meet in India revelated that the Indian racing patrons feel that there is a lot of ‘hanky-panky` happening in Indian racing. Recent events related to Jockey Chouhan, who was suspended for a year for his unsatisfactory riding of Lord Commander, have contributed to this perception.. Chouhan had appealed against the one-year riding ban imposed on him by the Stewards` body of the RWITC for not allowing a horse named Lord Commander to run on its merit. The six-member appeal board concurred with the Stewards` body`s decision that Chouhan had not permitted Lord Commander to “run on its merit”, but reduced his sentence to six months. Jockey Chouhan then sought interim relief from the Bombay High Court against the modified six-month suspension imposed on him by authorities of the Royal Western India Turf Club authorities. The matter is sub-judice and as such no views are offered on the subject. This writer is not commenting on the merits of jockey Chouhan`s riding of Lord Commander (because that is not the point). The pointed comment is related to the inability of the Turf Authority to discipline a professional it deemed to be errant. The sequence of events that have transpired have led to a definite erosion of confidence in Racing Integrity. Indian Turf Authorities can certainly improve in this area.
Area 7 – Reasonable Tax Levels
Hong Kong – Probably the most important improvement area for Indian racing would be in terms of betting. Hong Kong has a pari-mutuel system (otherwise known as the totalizator or tote) monopoly. There are no bookmakers in Hong Kong. The HKJC deducts about 18% from Win, Place, Quinella, and Quinella Place pools and 25% from the other pools. In the 2017-18 season, the Club made a record return to the Government of HK$22.6 billion (more than 20,000 crore Indian rupees) in duty and profits tax. Approved charity donations were HK$4.2 billion (nearly 4000 crore Indian rupees). HKJC is Hong Kong`s largest single taxpayer and one of the city`s major employers. Its Charities Trust is also one of the world`s top ten charity donors. What this translates to is the ability for race goers to bet on the races without the levy of an onerous tax. Odds are fairer (with the 18 to 25% take) for the betting patrons. This leads to larger betting volumes which in turn leads to more taxes collected by the HKJC and by Hong Kong.
Area of Improvement
The Indian racing scene has a long way to go to emulate the reality in Hong Kong. The Indian Turf Authorities continue to work with the various regulatory bodies in India to ease the burden on the Indian betting public. Progress will be made only when the Indian authorities change their mindset of treating levies from racing related activities as a golden goose and instead shift its paradigm to a more benevolent model as evidenced in Hong Kong racing.
Area 8 -- Importance of Wagering
Hong Kong – HKJC has given betting great importance and facilitated this aspect for all tiers of the betting public. Bettors have the option of playing many different types of bets ranging from the regular bets (such as win, place) to ordered bets (such as Quinella, Quinella Place, Trio, Tierce, First-4, Quartets) to Combination bets (such as Doubles, Trebles, All-Ups or ‘Kainchis` up to 6 horses, Composite Wins) to Exotics (such as Double Trios, Triple Trios, Six-Ups) to Pool bets (such as Jockey Challenge and Jockey Trainer Combo). Betting opens up more than a day in advance and punters can place their bets using the latest technology such as Online Betting, Telephone Betting, Automated Telebet Services, Mobile Betting Service, Racing Touch App , that allows them to bet when and where it best suits them. The HKJC recognizes the importance of providing flexible and convenient betting services and has more than one hundred off course betting branches (some of which are huge) which are staffed by courteous and knowledgeable customer services representatives to assist punters. There is no income tax, or any other additional tax, in Hong Kong for Hong Kong residents on winnings from horse racing.
Area of Improvement – Indian Turf Authorities may continue to look at emulating some of the wagering infrastructure that HKJC offers its patrons and work collaboratively with the Indian regulatory authorities to offer the ‘wagering-related` convenience and options which are available in Hong Kong.
About the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC)
Horse racing is administered by The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) which is one of the oldest institutions in Hong Kong. It is a non-profit organization providing horse racing, sporting and betting entertainment in Hong Kong. It holds a government-granted monopoly in providing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, the Mark Six lottery, and fixed odds betting on overseas football events. HKJC is the largest taxpayer in Hong Kong, as well as the largest community benefactor.
Hong Kong Racing Highlights
- Season starts in September and continues for 11 months till mid-July
- 88 Race meetings in a season
- 8 to 10 races in a race meeting (~ 820 races in a racing season)
- 12 to 14 runners in a race
- Horses run in Classes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Additionally, there are Group 1, 2, and 3 races, and races earmarked for Griffins (similar to Maidens)
- Happy Valley Race Track has a Turf track (similar to a Grass track) and conducts about 8 races (with ~12 runners in each race), typically every Wednesday night
- Sha Tin Race Track has a Turf (or Grass) track, besides an All Weather (similar to a sand track), and conducts about 10 races (with ~14 runners in each race) typically once a weekend
- The just-opened Conghua racecourse in the Guangdong province in China where horses are given tracks (including Barrier Trials or Mock Races)