IN perfect sunny weather for the first meeting of the Year of the Rabbit, a vast crowd of 96,000, the biggest Chinese New Year Meeting attendance for nine years, basked in the warm sunshine and relished the various entertainments.

Betting turnover today reached an enormous HK$1,261 million, the highest for a CNY meeting since 2001 and an increase of 8.6 per cent on the same meeting in 2010.

Betting duty paid to the government amounted to HK$153 million, with another HK$58 million retained by the Club for operating expenses and charity contributions.

HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges welcomed the meeting’s success. “The racing programme was good. The whole entertainment package was good, and the atmosphere on course was just fantastic,” he said. “This was the best CNY meeting I’ve seen in Hong Kong. It’s a really great start to the Year of the Rabbit.”

If a party atmosphere prevailed throughout, Sha Tin’s featured HKG1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize, second leg of the Hong Kong Speed Series, however, went a little differently from the way most people expected, with top favourite Sacred Kingdom denied in his attempt to equal the 18-victory winning record of the great Silent Witness.

The horse who failed to read the script was the relatively unheralded Dim Sum, trained by John Moore and ridden by Olivier Doleuze, who held the champ’s surge from the rear and was in fact going away again in the last few metres before the post arrived.

To many, though, Dim Sum’s success was no cause for astonishment as the seven-year-old was repeating his Chairman’s Sprint Prize victory of 2009 when Sacred Kingdom again finished behind him in third. Trainer John Moore insisted that he wasn’t one of those amazed by Dim Sum’s victory.

“He always surprises me even when he doesn’t get the soft ground he likes,” said the trainer. “He’s been running so well, and when he was able to hold onto Sacred Kingdom after being headed in the 1000m race last month (the HKG1 Kent & Curwen Centenary Sprint Cup, first leg of the Hong Kong Speed Series) you had to give him a real chance in this race.

“He won it two years ago and he’s won it again today,” said Moore. “Thanks to David [owner Pong Chun Yee] and Olivier Doleuze who gave him a great ride. The plan was that we should let Ultra Fantasy lead this time and so give Dim Sum a chance to finish off, and you’d have to say the tactics worked because when Sacred Kingdom came at him he held the challenge.”

Moore joked with owner David Pong Chun Yee that “He’s given you so much prize money now you can afford to buy another one even better, although finding a better one than Dim Sum might be a tough job.”

“John and his family have been training for my family for three generations,” responded the smiling owner, “and we hope they will continue to do so for three generations more.”

Of Moore’s other runners the more strongly fancied Let Me Fight appeared not quite to go through with his effort and “might be a little bit doggy” in his trainer’s estimation, although he was still good enough to finish third with Moore’s third contender One World, who had to overcome a check and finished only a length and a quarter behind the winner in fourth, perhaps a shade unlucky.

But the trainer had further reason for delight later on when the horse he calls “about the most consistent in Hong Kong” , Sunny King, showed tremendous fortitude under Gerald Mosse to hold the challenges of less burdened rivals to carry top weight to victory in The Chinese New Year Cup.

Racegoers had plenty to enjoy apart from some sensational racing. Of the nearly 90,000 packing the Sha Tin stands and more than a few will have certainly come for the supplementary events as much as for the action of the track.

The party started well before the first race with a Lion’s eye-dotting opening ceremony and a lavish variety show in the Parade Ring at which HKSAR Financial Secretary John Tsang was officiating guest in company with the Hong Kong Jockey Club Chairman T Brian Stevenson, Club Stewards and CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. Artistes appearing included TV stars Susanna Kwan, Johnson Lee and Ella Koon and feng shui master James Li shared his New Year perceptions.