[This feature appeared in the May 2018 issue of Badges magazine: PHOTOS David Morgan].

It’s good to get a rail berth at Happy Valley. That goes for jockeys and punters alike. For those in the multi-coloured silks and calf-pinching black boots, it can mean the difference between a sweet pay cheque and a sour near-miss. And for the rail-side spectators gripping in-focus smart phones against part-full plastic beer cups, it’s the difference between the perfect Instagram grab and a back-shot of someone’s bunny ears.

Yes, bunny ears. It’s the last week of March, Happy Wednesday’s Easter-themed night is in full swing and the Beer Garden crowd is bouncing – hopping, even – to live music and eight races that live right up to the bright lights of Hong Kong’s city-side hippodrome.

Alberto Sanna takes the opener, without any leporine adornments. The Italian steadies Golden Kid to the rail from gate five, shifts out in the stretch and the pink-hooded gelding darts home like a rabbit with a fox on its tail. All while the Beer Gardeners whoop, shout, snap and record.

Happy Valley has come far in recent years under the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Racecourse Master Plan; once an awe-striking concept of race track development couched in corporate buzz-babble like “customer segmentation”. That vision is the new normal these days; segmentation is working and the segmented don’t even know what it is. That’s success. So, too, the night’s 17,000-strong crowd and HK$1.2 billion turnover.

Things were different back in Sir Catchick Paul Chater’s day, but then, that was a century and more ago.

 Chater’s legacy

Alberto Sanna and Gold Mount return after winning the Happy Valley Vase as Tony Cruz looks on.

There is talk of Sir Paul, in a roundabout sort of a way, after Sanna repeats his rail-hugging move in the evening’s feature. That’s the beauty of one’s name being memorialised in the title of a major race.

The Champion Stakes was first staged in 1870 and Sir Paul won it five times as an owner. When he died in 1926, the Hong Kong Jockey Club honoured its former Chairman by changing the name of that race to the Champions & Chater Cup.

Gold Mount is headed to that Group 1 contest at Sha Tin on 27 May. That’s what trainer Tony Cruz says after Sanna scoops victory in the Class 1 Happy Valley Vase with a wonderfully-planned and executed ride. Sanna pays tribute to a French master.

“When he won at his first start in Hong Kong, at Sha Tin, Gerald (Mosse) won on him,” he says. “Gerald is my idol as a jockey, so I wanted to ride him similar to the way he rode that day. He saved plenty of ground but he had him a fair bit closer – I think the horse just takes encouragement from coming between horses.”

Sanna cut a despondent figure back in the grim days of winter, when he had only two wins to his credit and a growing list of losers to his possible detriment. But the former Bahrain champion is evidently a worker. That ethic and his friendly nature have warmed the notoriously icy core of the Sha Tin trainers’ rank. Cruz is generous toward the rider after Gold Mount’s score: “I think he is going to be hot property very soon!”

The trainer says he has two Group 1 aims for Gold Mount and the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup is one of those; the other is the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup, with a possible detour via a Group 3, the Queen Mother Memorial Cup, over the same mile and a half tract as the Champions & Chater.

That distance is as far as they race in Hong Kong. In fact, they only race over the trip three times in a season. Given that Gold Mount won a 2400m handicap at Royal Ascot before his importation, it’s easy to understand Cruz’s eagerness to send owner Pan Sutong’s little bay along that route. 

Cruz, it should be noted, has a remarkable record in the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup. After commencing his training career in 1996, the former champion jockey saddled 12 runners without success. And then, in 2013, the whitening grey, California Memory, triumphed. Cruz was suddenly unstoppable, winning the next three editions as well, until Werther claimed last year’s renewal for John Moore, who took his own haul to six.

 Moore is also talking Champions & Chater Cup after seeing his Eagle Way storm late to finish second. Jockey Brett Prebble was forced to take a wide alley down the home stretch.

“He’ll likely go to the Queen Mother and then the Champions & Chater – the winner went the short route tonight,” Moore says, adding that Ruthven is another heading towards the season’s last Group 1, while Werther is tentatively on track after a setback in February.

Cruz, too, is planning a multi-horse assault. His 2000-metre star, Time Warp, he says, and Pakistan Star, perhaps, will also be aimed at the race: “Time Warp’s a mile and a half horse, I’m sure of it,” he opines.

 A unique atmosphere

An old punter trackside by the parade ring as Jack Wong heads out on to the turf.

There are no bunny ears in the parade ring. The core of old school denizens don’t seem to be into them either; they’re too busy studying their form guides from the vantage point of the grandstand’s blue seats to be concerned about such frivolities.

The two-and-three-deep press at the trackside fence thins as race-goers head to the food and drink kiosks. The band starts up. It has a latin-infused pop-rock vibe going on. Phones are pointed towards the stage, recording again; selfies are snapped – more bunny ears, although many have been discarded as the night has worn on.

The Beer Garden mass is made up of sub-groups of friends, young couples, tourists, workmates; drinks in hand, often encircling a jug of amber liquid placed on the ground at their feet. The atmosphere is warm. There is excitement in the air, a sense of wonder beneath the floodlights’ welcoming glow.    

“I’ve ridden many places in the world and not one place is like Happy Valley – it’s beautiful,” says Sanna. “You are behind the gates, already high up because you are on the horse, and you looked around – the panorama, it’s all buildings, lit up, and then the moon. Nowhere in the world is like that.

“I’ve never ridden in a place like Happy Valley where the crowd is so close to you. When you go out, they are right there, and at the 1650 and 1800-metre starts the people are just right there, shouting, enjoying their night – it makes the atmosphere totally different.”

There won’t be bunny ears at Sha Tin in May. Instead, there will be the latest edition of the giveaway Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup baseball cap. The atmosphere will be different too, an underlay of championship seriousness replacing the themed party vibe. But still, it will be electric: Hong Kong’s Group 1 race days always are.