There are various ways of trying to make a profit out of horse races, but the two most obviously opposite are the British way, and the Hong Kong way. Or let’s call them the UK way and the HK way.
In Britain we like to work out the winner of a race and then slam as much on it as our courage, and of course our bookmaker, allows. (He soon twigs and offers ten pence ew with the rest at SP if we dare not to be wrong at least eight times out of ten).
Then there’s the HK way. In HK, punters, force-fed an almost constant diet of more or less inscrutable handicaps whose compilers never been known to blot, have devised another way. In HK, if you’re clever enough and diligent enough – no, don’t look in this direction on either count - it is possible to make profit, occasionally huge profit, because the tote really doesn’t care who wins, or loses, as long as the turnover keeps rolling.
Of course most still lose, but the hardworking and intellectually privileged few who, thinking logically and acting algorithmically, seem just about to have cracked the code offer hope to the rest of us - and fine wines, tropical beach holidays and elegant apartments dotted around the world to their happy families and many friends who tend to gaze at them in awe.
In UK we punch the air if we’ve found a winner. In HK they think a winner, even one at double figure odds (no, PARTICULARLY one at double figure odds) is simply wasted if you fail to combine it with other horses in quinellas (reverse forecasts) or tierces (trifectas) or impenetrable multiples called Double and Triple Trios which often produce the sort of payout of which we simple folk can only longingly dream.
The HK method, honed on handicaps but applied too to the international races (or “World Turf Championships” as they’re modestly described) involves calculated elimination from consideration of those who cannot finish in ‘The Three’, followed by cunning combination of those who, because of any angle, like a good draw, a drop to a favourable trip, or a surreptitious return to form, can or just might get into the endgame as major players, ideally as ones who surprise the average Joe on the track.
On Sunday we’re in Hong Kong, the biggest punting metropolis in the whole racing world. And not just on the ‘when in Rome’ basis but on the ‘I want a slice of that’ basis we must perforce consider all contests with the Hong Kong eye.
As often as not this involves finding a very hot favourite who might just possibly get beat, and sure enough we have one in the first of the four G1s that decorate Longines Hong Kong International day.
Highland Reel is by a full six points the best horse in the 12f Longines Hong Kong Vase (6.00 GMT). He will start at a price that reflects that superiority. But there are several reasons for believing that he could get turned over even in an event that’s been won by invaders nine times out of the last ten it’s been run.
He’s travelled the world. He’s won the King George at Ascot. He’s bolted up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He seems to be getting better with every race he runs. But all those strengths may almost be weaknesses.
He benefited from the absence of Postponed in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. He benefited from a sensational ride by Seamie Heffernan, and by the rare stupidity of Heffernan’s rivals, at Santa Anita. Eventually travelling catches up on all living things.
His form suggests he will love the firm ground at Sha Tin on Sunday (HK’s champion jockey two years ago, Zac Purton has said it will be ‘like concrete’) and he now goes to post under the official best jockey in the world. He is by far the most likely winner of the Vase, but he is not a certainty.
He won’t get the easy lead he did in the Breeders’ Cup. He’s got to start suffering from burnout sometime. Every other rider in the race is going to be thinking of ways to hassle and harry Ryan Moore.
Of course he’ll probably finish in the first three but the couple who’ve got to be put in with him are Big Orange, who’ll also love the ground, and Eastern Express whose trainer John Size pointed out was an early foal, has been caught out by that every time he’s run but who’s going to catch them up sooner or later and it could be this time.
The four-year-old has stamina potential through his dam, a daughter of Shirley Heights. He’s never run at 12f before, largely because HK has so few 12f races, and he should be a very good price. So he’s got no less than 13 ratings points to make up on the huge credit to his trainer that is Highland Reel.
Therefore the price. Because of Size’s prestige in HK he will probably be longer with the British books than on the tote. Big Orange on the other hand should be better value in HK than in UK.
Hong Kong sprinters are the best in depth in the world. The wonderfully popular Growl has no less than five of them, plus two Japanese and an Australian, in front of him in the ratings in the Longines Hong Kong Sprint (6.40). An 8000-mile trip at the end of a hard season is not going to help him improve past them all.
The five best HK sprinters are drawn next to each other along the rail. Lucky Bubbles is probably just the best of them. Notlstenin’tome and Amazing Kids may make the HK trifecta. Moore’s mount Big Arthur is probably the better of the Japanese, but good though he is, he’s no monster like Lord Kanaloa who upset the HK sprinting hegemony in 2013 and 2014.
The Longines Hong Kong Mile (7.50) is the trickiest race on the card. Able Friend, briefly the highest rated horse in the world before his deeply disappointing effort at Ascot, would have been the way to bet on his second outing after a return from injury.
As he will almost certainly be dropped out for a late surge the fact that he’s drawn 14 of 14 may be less significant than the possibility that he’s lost the edge that made him magnificent. He’s riden by the phenomenon that is Joao Moreira though. So if there’s any value at all to be had about him, it won’t be on the HK tote.
The ones who definitely aren’t good enough to get involved in the finish include Packing Pins, Beauty Flame, Cougar Moutain, Romantic Touch and Satono Aladdin.
Until Maurice won as he pleased last year, Hong Kong had won Longines Hong Kong Cup (8.30) nine years out of the last ten. Again an HK victory looks likely, but Neorealism who got the better of Maurice in the Sapporo Kinen and then finished an unlucky third in Japan’s Mile Championship, is a potential apple cart upsetter. Again the value needs to be checked by comparing HK tote and British bookie prices.
This is is the most exciting and potentially the most profitable race on the card. HK punters know all about Maurice, so with Ryan Moore on board he will offer nothing in the way of value. There has to be just a suspicion too that a mile rather than 10f is his best trip.
A Shin Hikari, another who’s been world top rated at some time in his career, is an “anything” horse. If he’s in the mood he could repeat last year’s victory. But he won’t be allowed to go off at a mid teen price as he did then.
Invaders lead Hong Kongers 6-4 in the last ten runnings. The ‘other’ Japanese Staphanos, on his third visit to Sha Tin (he finished third to the now possibly ageing but never to be ignored Blazing Speed in the APQEII last year) could be the answer at biggish odds. But don’t forget many of us expected an all Japanese tierce in last year’s running, and the locals, led by Werther, whacked them comprehensively.
Don’t underestimate home advantage. Don’t back horses who are going to be shorter than they deserve just because they’ve got local heroes on board. Don’t get too patriotic. There’s an usher with white gloves pointing the way to the poor house if you do. Or there should be.
Above all, don’t bet like a Brit. This is Hong Kong.