Racing: Ways of the East point to National enlightenment: Hong Kong succeeded where Aintree's authorities failed after the abandonment of their seasonal showpiece. Clive Hughes reports

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The Independent Online
SO IT can be done. Those who have been clamouring for the void Grand National to be re-staged this year will have glanced enviously at Sunday's events in Hong Kong. The colony's biggest races, the International Cup and International Bowl, worth the equivalent of pounds 222,506 and pounds 173,060 to the winners, were run four months after their intended date. The original meeting, planned for 13 December, was wrecked by an equine virus which stopped racing there for a month.

With two meetings a week during the season, and betting turnover of HKdollars 1bn ( pounds 89m) regularly achieved at one meeting, the pounds 1m loss to British racing as a result of the National fiasco seems trivial by comparison.

In fact, in the tale of the two cancelled races, British racing is somewhat exposed.

The Grand National, it was argued, could not go ahead because the race would be a pale imitation of the real thing were it to be run at any other date; horses would not be ready, the ground would not be right, public interest would not be there. The damage to the reputation of the race was irreparable but ephemeral.

Yet Sha Tin on Sunday was no anti- climax. Over 80,000 racegoers turned up to the meeting - along with runners from four different continents and 10 different countries. The two big races were won by the New Zealand-trained Romanee Conti (Cup) and America's Glen Kate (Bowl), thus ensuring the event would continue to serve as a worldwide advertisement for racing in Hong Kong.

Betting on the two big races - nearly HKdollars 112m for the Cup and more than HKdollars 103m for the Bowl - suggests that public interest had not waned over four months.

'The Hong Kong racing public really do look forward to the International races as the highlight of the season,' Major-General Guy Watkins, chief executive of the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club, said, 'and yes, we were concerned that the international prestige of these races would suffer if they were not restaged.'

Betting on the other six, local, races on the card, however, averaged even more than the big two, HKdollars 124.8m ( pounds 10.9m). 'This is because Hong Kong's punters are sophisticated and very well informed. Betting on unknown form is not so attractive as betting on Hong Kong's own racing,' Watkins explained.

The RHKJC had a huge advantage over its British counterpart in that it knew the International races would be abandoned weeks in advance and, unlike Aintree, before many of the costs involved in staging the meeting had been incurred.

Watkins said the club had committed some money on preliminary organisation but that this had not been substantial. One expense was sending 'goodwill gifts' of about pounds 1,600 to the owner of each international entry.

The club's name and the military background of its chief executive makes the RHKJC sound like an oriental offshoot of the British Jockey Club.

Far from it. The RHJKC is in charge of the pounds 5bn annual Hong Kong betting turnover and there are no legal bookmakers, only 125 Off- Track Betting Centres. Such wealth contributed to the bemusement at Sha Tin on Grand National day when 15,000 racegoers stayed behind to watch a live broadcast of the Aintree race at 10.50pm.

'Obviously they were disappointed that the race was abandoned and, not being familiar with steeplechasing or tape starts, some of them did not really understand why or how things went wrong,' Watkins said.

Hong Kong was not alone.

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