Leading racing commentator Mark McNamara has handled the transition to one of the world’s most watched racing jurisdictions with aplomb. The Australian racecaller, who until August of last year spent more than a decade plying his trade in New Zealand, recently made the move to Hong Kong, where racing continues behind closed doors but is proving a popular source of entertainment under the confined conditions of Covid-19.
The voice of Canterbury racing, McNamara joined Kiwi commentator Tom Wood in Hong Kong as the English racecallers in the unique jurisdiction, where racing is king of all sports. The 40-year-old has been in Hong Kong for a month and last weekend had the job of calling one of the most thrilling finishes to the HK$20million Hong Kong Derby (2000m), with favourite Golden Sixty narrowly prevailing in Hong Kong’s most prestigious race.
While racing jurisdictions around the world are largely on hold, Hong Kong as a nation has dealt with the pandemic well and the Hong Kong Jockey Club have enforced strict protocols to continue racing. “Life goes on here in Hong Kong,” McNamara said. “We are going through a relapse I suppose of coronavirus. We had an outbreak of 30 or 40 cases over the last few days so they have tightened the restrictions a little bit. “Masks are very much the norm when you go out around here but life does go on. “The Jockey Club has taken every measure possible to make sure racing does continue which it has done, and will hopefully continue to do.
McNamara had never been to Hong Kong prior to his appointment to the role of commentator. “We have done so much in that time,” he said. “Racing has been behind closed doors the entire time. So we are talking crowds of about three or four hundred people. Basically Riccarton on a Thursday.”
McNamara nailed the Golden Sixty commentary last weekend, colourfully describing the emerging superstar and accurately calling the correct result as tearaway leader Playa Del Puente was run down by the favourite. “I was pretty nervous before the Derby, even though in New Zealand I had called the Group 1s and the Thousand and Two Thousand Guineas and the Trotting Cups and the Dominions, this was a HK$20 million Hong Kong Derby,” McNamara said. “It was a completely different audience than what I had called in Australia and New Zealand. “This was going out to about nine different countries and it was important to get it right. You have one chance to nail your first big feature race, that was the Derby and thanks to Blake Shinn (who rode Playa Del Puente) it became the most remarkable, entertaining Derby that they have had here in a long time.”
New Zealand had many links to the Hong Kong Derby winner, with the horse undertaking his early education with Sam Beatson and Ben Foote, before being sold at the Ready To Run Sale through Beatson’s Rivesley Park draft. Purchased by trainer Francis Lui, in conjunction with bloodstock adviser Willie Leung, Golden Sixty was then sent to Matamata trainer Graham Richardson for whom he had three trials prior to embarking on his journey to Hong Kong.
Not only was the horse educated in New Zealand, but jockey Vincent Ho also learned plenty under the tutelage of Kiwi trainer and former jockey Lance O’Sullivan. “For Hong Kong to have a homegrown jockey win the Derby was a pretty big thing,” McNamara said. The enthusiastic commentator has quickly become au fait with the horse population, given it is limited to around 1200. “The numbers are very compact and it will become easier to get to know them,” he said. “In the replays you can watch about every angle imaginable on the website and the vet records and track work is there which is very handy. “Luckily enough I have been calling the trials since I got here which has been a massive plus to get to know the horses.”
McNamara has been impressed by the handling of the virus, believing the experience of SARS in the early 2000s had the nation better prepared to respond decisively. The city confirmed 24 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, mostly people returning home from overseas, which took the total to 410. “Everyone has told us that it is quieter than what it usually is and there are reports that shopping malls are empty and there is no one about. That is just rubbish, there are still people about. “There are so many masks and if you don’t wear one you certainly get looked at like why aren’t you wearing a mask.
“Life goes on for the locals but on a quieter scale than what everyone tells you. “Temperature checks are a regular thing, not only here at work but at some supermarkets. “You walk into the offices here at Sha Tin and they take your temperature on the ground floor. You go up the escalator to level one and they take it again. “They are very keen to make sure it doesn’t go any further. The Jockey Club just wants to keep racing. Racing is the thing here in Hong Kong and pretty much everything else is off. “Even when everything is on, racing is the be all and end all in Hong Kong.”