The pageantry, the colour and excitement of world-class racing, and the fabulous betting pools during International Races Week in Hong Kong are fantastic, but writer and punter Daniel O'Sullivan believes the real eyeopener there is the wealth of racing information provided free for all, which he says is an example the Australian industry needs to follow.

In December, I had the thrill of visiting Hong Kong for the showpiece of their racing season, International Races Week. This annual festival of racing culminates each year with the running of four International Group 1 events over different distances on the same card; the Hong Kong Sprint (1000m), the Hong Kong Mile (1600m), the Hong Kong Cup (2000m) and the Hong Kong Vase (2400m).

The pageantry and excitement of the week climaxed fittingly this season: Hong Kong's newest racing superstar, Silent Witness, showed blistering speed to win the International Sprint and Falbrav, the best 2000m horse in the world, annihilated his opposition to win the Hong Kong Cup, bringing a fantastic finale to his career.

During the week, I attended two race meetings, morning track work, and a number of official functions and I could not help but be impressed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). The entire week was a fantastic spectacle, truly a world-class event.

The week's highlights have been well documented in daily newspapers and racing media. However, as a
punter, the thing that impressed me most about the HKJC was its policy of providing the very best information to punters.

The HKJC website is a virtual heaven for punters and is found at: glish/index.asp

The HKJC provides an extensive database on the form and statistics for every horse racing in Hong Kong.

This can be searched either on a horse-by-horse basis, or by clicking on a horse name in the race card, which lists the fields for upcoming meetings.

Many Australian punters will remember the talented 3yo filly Elegant Fashion, who won three straight Group races in Melbourne during the autumn of 2002, before finishing second to the top-class Republic Lass in the Group 1 AJC Oaks. She has since gone on to Hong Kong under the care of David Hayes and established herself as a top-class race mare.

I search for Elegant Fashion and in seconds see her complete Hong -history. As a matter of Kong form interest, I can aIso see the bodyweight at which she competed on each occasion (published before the race), providing a powerful pointer to when she is at peak fitness and performs best.

Being able to look up a horse's form is nothing new for Australian punters - there are a number of free resources on the Internet that allow the same thing. However, by clicking on a particular run in the form of Elegant Fashion, the HKJC website takes me immediately to that race, where I can see the entire field, finishing order, margins and prices. I can then click on any runner in the field to examine its form. Clicking on Elegant Fashion's run in the Hong Kong Cup shows she ran third to Falbrav. This ex~ Australian filly really has progressed well in her career.

If that is not enough, I can see in-running photos of the field, with each horse labelled, at the 800m, 400m, 200m and finish. Better still, I can click and watch a video replay of the race. This information is available free for every race.

The HKJC also provides comprehensive statistics on all jockeys and trainers. Winning strike rates, both overall and recently from the last 10 meetings, as well as at each track and distance. You can also examine the complete list of rides for a jockey or runners for a trainer in the current season. It makes it very easy to see when a jockey or trainer is in good or bad form.

The fun does not stop there. Hong Kong punters can access a whole range of other useful racing information, including:

  • Detailed barrier draw statistics for each track and distance.
  • The official rating given to each horse, with history so you can see how and when that rating changed.
  • A report on the type and quality of trackwork a horse has done (trackwork is also broadcast daily on television).
  • The standard times for each track and distance, and much more.

The level of information provided to punters in Hong Kong is a direct result of the conscious and proactive policy held by the HKJC.

"Our objective is to make sure our customers have access to all the information they need to enjoy and succeed at racing," says Ms June Teng, manager for the Public Affairs Department at the HKJC.

"For this reason, we have not been content to just record and supply basic data and statistics, but have' sought out new technology and developed new programmes that provide higherlevel information for past-performance analysis."

In recent times the HKJC has taken this policy to a new level by employing a private form analyst (from Australia) and producing a range of new products, available free to punters.SpeedPOWER is a suite of powerful new racing tools to help punters make better betting decisions. It contains on-line formguides for each meeting with speed ratings for every run of every horse; speed maps with commentary, forecasting how each race is likely to be run and which runners will be suited or unsuited; and detailed inrunning comments for each horse's past performances, including where the horse settled in the field, what the pace was like and how the horse finished its race off.

There is also a detailed on-line video tutorial that demonstrates how to analyse past performances, understand speed and select more winners. SpeedPOWER is a comprehensive and professional service the likes of which, if available in Australia, would come at a hefty cost. The HKJC provides it free - that"s what I call a great service to punters!

The HKJC recognises that many bettors lack the time for in-depth analysis, and so they have developed simplified form sheets for them, such as Easy Form and SpeedPICK, that are so concise they can be printed and carried in a pocket.

SpeedPICK is the output of a computer-generated form-analysis programme that supplies final ratings for each runner, taking into account past performances, likely improvement or decline and the suitability of today's conditions. This is combined with the speed maps to give punters a comprehensive but compact overview of each race.

Easy Form is an innovative format-a-glance tool for punters who are short on time or simply want that extra piece of information to help with their analysis. It includes the SpeedPICK rating for each runner and uses a system of ticks and crosses to indicate previous success, failure and likely suitability of the track, distance, going and trainer/ jockey combinations.

There is also a unique thumbs-up and thumbs down indicator to show the quality of each horse's current trackwork and fitness.

Overall, Easy Form is an outstanding tool to quickly get your mind around the key factors in a race.

The most recent innovation by the HKJC is the Stride timing system, which records the individual sectional times for every runner, as well as providing positional data for inclusion in the live broadcast of the race on the huge screen in the infield at Sha Tin racetrack. When Stride becomes fully operational, probably this April, its data will be available for free on the HKJC website. As you can imagine, public interest in the system is strong.

So how does all this compare with the current situation in Australian racing? What can Australian racing authorities learn from the HKJC?

As a punter, it is very easy to feel jealous about the outstanding level of high-quality information provided free to Hong Kong patrons: on-line databases with all races dynamically linked; in-running position photos; on-line video replays; trackwork reports; comprehensive jockey and trainer statistics with details of all previous rides/runners; barrier draw statistics; standard times for each track and distance; speed ratings; speed maps; in-running commentary for every runner; individual sectional times; and innovative form products such as Easy Form.

In fairness, the structure and level of participation in Hong Kong racing is different to the highly fragmented Australian industry, and this arguably makes it a little easier for the HKJC to provide such service. Even taking that into account, it seems the Australian racing industry and its punters are a long way behind.

Some private organisations here provide quality information free on the Internet, such as formguides, searchable databases and statistics. However, Australian race clubs and TABs which have the greatest interest in the contribution of punters - provide what can only be described as a very basic level of information. The total of free information available to Australian punters is poor when benchmarked against Hong Kong.

Punters are the lifeblood of our racing industry and without their participation the industry will not survive, let alone become vibrant and successful. Punter enjoyment and satisfaction from betting should rate as a high priority for Australian racing authorities. This satisfaction could be greatly enhanced through better education and information.

This is something the HKJC understands: "We believe that ensuring bettors have accurate and timely information is essential to the success of the racing industry," says Ms Teng.

"Information changes racing from a mere game of chance where luck rules, to a sport where players can enjoy the immense personal satisfaction of learning the skills to make their own successful betting decisions."

She also makes the point that "racing competes for customer attention with a wide range of rival attractions, and unless we enrich the racing experience for the betting public, the industry will lose out."

This is a very important and relevant point for the Australian racing industry. There is an ever present and increasing threat posed by other wagering and entertainment options available to the public. Unless there are proactive measures to enhance racing's share of the pie, the industry will certainly "lose out". These measures must focus on the punter, and the range of information and racing education provided by racing authorities is a great place to start.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that with rapidly increasing globalisation of all industries and markets, it may not be too long before Australian punters can just as easily follow and wager on racing across the world. Unless the service provided to punters here is on par with that offered by these other jurisdictions, it is likely the local industry will suffer.

While Australian racing authorities may hold the same views, the Hong Kong example shows there is a lot more they can do to demonstrate their commitment to punters. While the scope and fragmented nature of Australian racing may pose some challenges, I am sure these can be overcome, especially when the success of the industry is at stake.

My experience in Hong Kong has convinced me that Australian punters should be offered more. Racing authorities need to take a more holistic view of their strategies aimed at increasing the level of participation and, most importantly, the level of satisfaction that punters get from racing. New betting products are great, and improved facilities with extensive marketing to attract people to racing are all necessary.

However, they are only part of the picture. A long-term investment in providing better information and education for punters should become a greater focus of Australian racing authorities. Such a policy will no doubt contribute to the enjoyment punters gain from racing and can only bring tremendous benefits to the industry.

By Daniel O’Sullivan