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Monday Musings: Hong Kong? Phooey!

Why do people own horses? That’s a very good question in these days of high costs and, apart from at the top level, pretty ordinary prize money levels, writes Tony Stafford. In simple terms you have to love the game,  I assume, but some syndicates and racing clubs also manage to tap into social aspirations even for non- lovers.

At the higher level in that regard must be the Royal Ascot Racing Club which not only has the best facilities and catering standards available to its members, but the cachet of the Royal meeting itself to entice would-be adherents. They have also had a Derby winner, Motivator, run in their colours.

Not far behind, certainly for people of a certain vintage – and sadly perhaps racing still relies principally on that age-group – must be the Kingsclere Racing Club. This is run from Andrew Balding’s stable on the Hampshire-Berkshire borders and relies entirely on bloodstock bred by Kingsclere Stud.

Not the least of the appeal is that the Club is able to utilise the historic colours, black with a gold cross, worn by the wonderful Mill Reef, always referred to as among the top handful of thoroughbreds in the second half of the last century. Mill Reef was trained by Andrew’s father, Ian, for the colt’s American owner-breeder, Paul Mellon.

His 12 wins and two second places in 14 races included an impressive Epsom Derby success. His defeats were both at the very top level. As a juvenile he was edged out in a close finish by My Swallow, the champion European 1970 two-year-old, and then in the next year’s 2,000 Guineas when the equally brilliant Brigadier Gerard – who only ever lost once in 18 starts over three seasons’ racing – beat him and My Swallow in probably the greatest Guineas of all time.

Mill Reef would almost certainly have improved even on those figures bar a shattered leg sustained while being prepared for the 1972 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Happily, supreme care and rehabilitation meant he recovered well enough to fulfil a highly-meritorious stallion career at the National Stud in Newmarket.

Even after all these years the sight of those silks coming to the fore on the racecourse gives me a charge as it must the 25 shareholders (that’s the maximum Kingsclere Racing Club seeks according to their literature) when they appear on track.

For an interest in the stated 15 Flat horses – the odd one does run over jumps from time to time – each member pays £6,000 <hope that’s current> and in turn is entitled to one-fiftieth share of prize money, so the management keeps and underwrites at least one-half. In 2018, 14 individual Kingsclere Stud horses ran for a total of nine wins and around £180,000. I reckon that will boil down to around £110,000 of owners’ money after jockey, trainer, stable percentage and other Weatherbys deductions.

So it should still leave in excess of two  grand to each member from the six invested – a not-unreasonable return for the excitement of seeing 71 domestic and a few overseas runs during the year, especially with the social aspect and free admission to the top enclosure on track.

I’m not sure how many of the members – or even the trainer - fancied yesterday’s jaunt up to Newcastle for their four-year-old Seasearch, a son of Passing Glance who won twice last year and stepped up to two miles in 0-65 company. Sadly the jury will still be out on his stamina as he was a one-paced sixth of eight, but the travelling costs for the horse – if not the owners – will have been partially defrayed by prizemoney of £400 for all the also-rans.

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The bulk of the 2018 earnings for Kingsclere Racing Club was shared between two horses. Brorocco, who despite failing to win in seven starts, collected most with almost £60,000 from place prizes. The three-year-old Urban Aspect, a son of Cityscape out of Casual Glance, a Kingsclere stalwart, won £53,000 from four runs. After a promising debut third, he won three times, culminating in victory from a big field in a mile handicap at the York Ebor meeting in August.

Four weeks after York, Urban Aspect was gelded and the next time he appeared in a race programme was yesterday morning when he was due to make his Hong Kong debut in the concluding Lung Kung Handicap, a Class 2 race over a mile and worth £111,000 to the winner.

My former Daily Telegraph colleague, Jim McGrath, busily mopping up assignments all around the globe in his lucrative later years, penned a piece about the card in yesterday’s Racing Post. He suggested the former Richard Hannon horse Tigre du Terre was the one to be on.

But in a very competitive field he could finish only ninth, failing to build on a promising debut run last month. If any Kingsclere Racing Club member is none the wiser, I am very sad for you. Clearly a substantial price was forthcoming for their former money-spinner. At that point no doubt any ongoing pecuniary benefit would have ended in the way Motivator’s sale as a stallion did not enrich Sir Clement Freud and the rest of the Royal Ascot RC membership. I’m sure the Balding family and the club officials have that element firmly defined. This seems a very well-run and highly-successful enterprise from where I’m looking.

In the manner of Hong Kong racing, the new proud owner, Mr Leng Shek Kong, chose a “lucky” name for his investment at which point La Ying Star was born. When I looked briefly down the list yesterday morning, I could not understand why a horse with three wins to his name should be available at outsider odds in that 9.45 a.m. race.

Later, having not been professional enough to watch live – and even Jim’s wise words when I saw them had already been overtaken by actual events – I saw that the 3111- form figure horse had indeed won. I’m sure that even after the BHA hike from 93 to 104 as a result of York his previous owners would not have been dissuaded from backing him again wherever he appeared after wins at 2-1, 8-11 and 5-1.

If they were aware of his new surroundings they would have been rewarded at 29-1. If it had been me, I’m sure I’d have missed the Hong Kong wedding but tucked in at the Geordie funeral!

There were three more UK imports in the field. Sixth home Charity Go (BHA106) was also ex-Balding and this was the third Hong Kong outing for the former Fortune’s Pearl. He was a Qatar Racing “discard” if you could ever refer to the high-price Hong Kong Derby turkey shoot in that way, such are the prices received.

Ninth over the line was Classic Beauty (BHA 103) and unraced since winning easily at Naas in June for Adrian Paul Keatley. That was his third try for the one-time London Icon in the Far East where his record stands at 10/9/9. Lastly Tigre du Terre, no name change here, won three of nine for Hannon in the colours of another great ownership entity, Middleham Park.

It would be nice to think that the 25 or however many members there were last year, and will be for the new team in 2019, had their brains on at 29-1. Almost better than having 2% of the £111k!

As for New Year resolutions, I have made one in particular. Here and especially now – maybe later – might not be the place to reveal the details of a financial difficulty that has appeared in the carrying out of my usual function. What I have promised myself is that having spent the first almost 50 years of my horse-racing-aware (so 1962 on) life knowing pretty much everything about what’s running and therefore might be capable of winning each day, and latterly slipped markedly into sloth, I’m not too old or tired out to renew full attention. As someone – more than one – says from time to time, “You can still find them!” I realise, though, you have to look first. I’m looking, mark my words, and now and then I’ll feel confident enough to pass them on! Have a Happy Punting New Year.