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Picture: HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
 

asianracingreport.com

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has welcomed its first imports owned by non-resident international owner-breeders as it seeks a new way to invigorate the horse population.

HKJC sounded out a number of significant owner-breeders around the world earlier this year and from those, billionaire businessman Zhang Yuesheng and South African racing doyenne Mary Slack are the first to have horses trained full-time in Hong Kong.

Any new owners must be HKJC Racing Members, which requires the stiff formality of being ‘signed in’ by a Voting Member, but, in a break from long tradition, being a Hong Kong resident is no longer a requirement.

Zhang’s famous green and white ‘Yulong’ colours will be seen aboard the British PP (Private Purchase) import Show Respect, which arrived in Hong Kong on September 10 to be trained by Douglas Whyte, and Slack’s first PP Wings Of War landed last Friday on its way to Tony Millard’s stable.

Wings Of War wins the Mill Reef Stakes at Newbury. (Photo by Steven Paston/Getty Images)

 

“It is a very cautious approach to allow certain, very selective, international owner-breeders – but persons, not corporations – to be involved in Hong Kong racing,” said Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Club’s CEO.  

“It is not open slather, but we want to strengthen the global reach of Hong Kong racing and there are people who we think can help but we will do this step by step.

“We are looking for connections that are not just horse owners but they are also connected to breeding. We have no policy to open up to the world for corporate owners, we are being selective, owners that have an interest in the breeding side. We want owners that are well known and have an international view.”

Hong Kong’s horse population is down in numbers due to Hong Kong’s owners struggling to purchase the right horses in a tough market against the backdrop of two years of Covid restrictions on travel.

A dearth of quality horses being available to buy and high prices being asked in Australia and Europe has meant that several owners who were allotted permits to buy a horse have handed them back to the Club unused, a situation that would have been unheard of in past years.

“It is about getting good horses here,” said Millard. “The last two or so years, trainers have spent a lot of money and come up with nothing. The market is tough, there is no doubt about it, you can’t get the horses out of Australia like you used to because the syndicates are so huge that no matter what you offer them, the smaller shareholders don’t want it. This has been, fundamentally, the problem.

“During Covid, none of the trainers were able to go out. For the first year, agents bought, and you should have seen what came. Nobody bought the next year, how can you? People were too scared because they had been burnt.”

Those difficulties have resulted in a depleted top bracket and the recent G3 National Day Cup, the first Group race of the season at Sha Tin, attracted a half-field of just seven runners.

“Frankly speaking, since John Moore left here, the quality of horses has gone down,” continued Millard, referencing the former champion trainer who led his peers in sourcing and training top-class tried imports until his enforced retirement in July 2020 at age 70.

“Nobody is saying that it hasn’t, it is a fact. When you look at it, we are something like 100 horses down on what we normally are and it has been very tough, the number has gone down, and the quality is not what it used to be.”

Owner Yuesheng Zhang after his horse Sikandarabad won at Mornington. (Photo by Natasha Morello/Getty Images)

The PPs imported by Zhang and Slack are the types of horses the club is keen to source. The three-year-old Wings Of War – rated 107 in Britain – won the G2 Mill Reef Stakes as a juvenile and was purchased by Slack after running third in the G2 Hungerford Stakes in August; the two-year-old Show Respect raced four times in Britain, most recently when second in the G2 July Stakes at Newmarket prior to Zhang’s purchase of the colt.   

Englebrecht-Bresges met with Zhang in Paris during the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe weekend and said that the global owner-breeder impressed him with “how he thinks about his business.”

The billionaire businessman is behind a massive Group 1-winning breeding and racing operation that spans Europe, Australia – he is the biggest breeder in Victoria – the United States and mainland China. His best horses on the track include this year’s G1 Irish Oaks winner Magical Lagoon, the G1 Australian Oaks winner Hungry Heart, and the G1-winning colts Tagaloa and Lucky Vega; his Yulong Stud in Victoria stands five stallions, headed by current Australian champion stallion Written Tycoon, and boasts an impressive broodmare band in terms of both size and quality.   

Meanwhile, Slack is the daughter of the late Harry and Bridget Oppenheimer, of De Beers diamond wealth, and is a major figure in South African racing, in large part as the proprietor of the Group 1-producing Wilgebosdrift, which she established, and the Oppenheimer family’s historic Mauritzfontein stud, alongside her daughter, Jessica Slack. She is credited with saving the industry in South Africa two years ago, investing about US$35 million in the wake of the Phumelela Gaming collapse.

The Mary Slack-owned Claymore wins the Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot (Getty Images).

Her notable successes as an owner this year alone include the victory of the currently injured Claymore in the G3 Hampton Court Stakes at Royal Ascot – a race that has previously been a source of Hong Kong imports – and a first win in the G1 Durban July with Sparkling Water.

Engelbrecht-Bresges said that the club will bring in more overseas-based owners – on a selective basis – with a view that they will benefit Hong Kong long term, and added that reputable owner-breeders in Australia and New Zealand have also been approached.