Looks can be deceiving
A nondescript and almost sleepy-looking brown gelding stands at the edge of the all-weather track at Sha Tin and slowly turns his head, ears pricked, deliberately pausing in the half-dark, before stepping out on to the moist dirt.
If it wasn't for brand number 399 emblazoned on his red saddle cloth, and if this unusual ritual wasn't a daily occurrence, even the keenest trackwork watcher would have trouble recognising Ambitious Dragon as anything out of the ordinary.
Although unexceptional looking, this animal can do extraordinary things on a racetrack, and today this lazy 'gentle giant' stands on the brink of greatness, with a chance to stride into history as the first Hong Kong Triple Crown winner in nearly 20 years.
A win in the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup, over a lung-burning 2,400 metres - a trip he has never attempted - would also seal a second straight Horse of the Year title, joining modern greats Silent Witness and Fairy King Prawn as two-time winners.
Trainer Tony Millard takes a position in the grandstand, stopwatch in hand, as his wife Beverley, as always in the saddle, niggles at the 'lazy worker' to get going down the back straight. Warming to the task, Ambitious Dragon runs 51.6 seconds for his last 800m, including a near race speed 23.8 for the final 400m. The gallop has gone exactly to plan. 'It's a massive advantage to have Beverley riding for me,' says Millard as he walks back to the trotting ring for a post-workout review.
'It's nice to have someone on that you relate to. She has a great feel and can tell me where he might be feeling a little bit sore. She's ridden the best horses I've trained ... and we can talk about the thousands of horses we've had and she has ridden over the years. She gives me her honest opinion and sometimes it isn't what you would like to hear, but that feedback tells us what we need to do and helps us make those on-the-spot decisions that as trainers define us and can make or break a horse.
'It doesn't help having jockeys getting on and off all the time. Sometimes you feel like they're just trying to tell you something that you want to hear because they're scared you're not going to put them on the horse.'
Sensitive and fragile aren't words usually associated with 1,200-pound animals capable of running 70 kilometres an hour, but that's exactly what Ambitious Dragon is, according to those who know him, and why he needs round-the-clock care.
'He is not a robust or straightforward horse,' says Millard. 'There is a lot of maintenance that goes into getting him to the races, just like a lot of top horses. But when that bell goes and the gates open, he becomes a different machine.'
Beverley dismounts and gives her report: 'Working on his own, that is as good as you're going to get. It was good work, but he will go around like an old hack with his head on the ground if you let him.'
Ambitious Dragon is now hand-walked for 20 minutes, part of a rigorous routine that began an hour before the horse's gallop with warm-ups on a walking machine and in the trotting ring, the exhaustive process aimed at curbing aches and pains and a muscle enzyme problem that flares through inactivity.
As he walks by, the Horse of the Year blends right in with the crowd.
'He is pretty plain,' Millard says with a laugh. 'It would be pretty difficult to pick one out like him. That's why he went through the sales without a bid as a yearling.'
What the five-year-old does have going for him is size, a deep girth and well-developed hindquarters, from where he derives his startling ability to 'let down' and accelerate off an already fast pace.
'If you look at his confirmation, he has a most magnificent hind leg on him, very good length from hip to tail and he has got a gaskin [the upper part of the leg] you'd die for. It's massive, and that's where he gets his power from.'
Even the horse's best feature - his backside - has a slight, if only cosmetic, flaw: an indentation on his near-side rump, probably caused by a paddock accident as a youngster.
'And he has two offset knees. You wouldn't normally buy a horse with one offset knee,' Millard says. 'But his basic mechanics are right and his hamstrings are a hell of a lot stronger than that of a normal horse.'
Of course, what you can't see or quantify is the important part of the horse, his heart and desire to compete. Buying untried racehorses has been described as being like buying a car without knowing if it has an engine, but it seems Ambitious Dragon has that will to win.
'He is just a gentle giant that saves himself for race day and that's when this amazing competitive spirit comes out,' Beverley says. 'He is so competitive. When he works on his own he is quiet, but when he can hear the other horses coming, he will get competitive and he wants to take them on, then he relaxes again. He is a very special horse, and they don't come along very often.
'He has this unbelievable character. He is a perfect gentleman 90 per cent of the time, just don't disturb him when he is eating or sleeping,' she says.
Watching what Ambitious Dragon eats is another aspect of training which requires balance. 'He'll eat whatever you give him,' the trainer says as he walks with the horse to the sand roll within his stable complex. 'He is already a very, very big horse, at 1,200 pounds, so you've got to be careful because he will be 1,250 overnight. He packs it on really quick.'
Ambitious Dragon stands in the yard, faces away from Millard and his mafoo, Cash Lee Tsz-wai, refusing to co-operate, his ever-present handler playfully throwing some sand on to the horse's back and shooing him around, trying to coax him into having a roll, a way for the horse to stretch and unwind.
'He'll stand there all day if you let him, like an old goat,' Millard says, before reflecting on how far the horse has come in less than two years.
Millard didn't always train Ambitious Dragon. He had four runs for Francis Lui Kin-wai without winning, before being transferred.
The South African is careful not to criticise Lui, saying the horse had a series of physical ailments that stopped him from reaching his potential. 'When we started out with him, he had so many things wrong with him, I thought, 'If this horse can run like this with all of these things wrong, what is he going to do when we fix him?''
The trainer credited Club vets Chris Riggs and Alex Davis with getting Ambitious Dragon right, although he claims the horse 'will never be 100 per cent'.
'Slowly, methodically, we worked on him. One thing came right and he ran some nice races. He hadn't got in his mind yet that he was a winner, and to me you've got to make them winners and believe in themselves and think they are invincible.'
Ambitious Dragon won his first two starts for Millard, but it was a defeat at Happy Valley and a tactical change which provided the turning point in the horse's career. 'After he was beaten, I just thought, 'How can I get this horse better?' He had been racing handy, but I wanted to do something different.'
French jockey Maxime Guyon was ordered to take a sit further back in the field at his next start and the real Ambitious Dragon was unleashed. 'We'd seen what happens when you go forward, he is pretty limited,' says Millard. 'When we took a sit, then I saw it, I thought, 'Whoa, this is a top horse.' You could see that he could finish well and I was pretty sure he was something special.'
The withering sprint from the tail in a Class Three handicap gave Ambitious Dragon his third win, on his way to a record-equalling seven-win season, which included the Mercedes-Benz Classic Cup, Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby and Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup.
After 10 minutes of toying with his handler, Ambitious Dragon does a roll and lets out a slight groan as he climbs to his feet and shakes off the sand.
Ambitious Dragon's main rival today is a polar opposite in the looks department, a regally bred, near-black stallion named Dominant who is rumoured to have cost US$1million to bring to John Moore's star-studded stable. While Moore will be hoping Dominant adds a Group One to his resume, he admits to being an unabashed fan of Millard's horse, earlier this season labelling Ambitious Dragon the best he had seen in his 40-plus years in Hong Kong.
'He can quicken off a slow pace and he can quicken when they run along,' Moore said. 'He is very versatile and he is probably one of the best horses that I've seen in my lifetime around here. Ambitious Dragon is very special.'
Dominant has the pedigree to run 2,400m, and proved it last start with an impressive win in the Queen Mother Memorial Cup over that journey and will be ridden by 11-time premiership winner Douglas Whyte, Ambitious Dragon's rider until a very public falling-out between trainer and jockey over Whyte's ride in the BMW Champions Mile this month.
Whyte rode the horse seven times for four wins, including a stunning first-up victory in the National Day Cup in October, after which the jockey anointed Ambitious Dragon as 'probably the best horse I've ever ridden'.
'He is the most amazing horse to ride,' he said. 'This is the sort of horse you dream about all your life. It's just beautiful.'
Italian young gun Umberto Rispoli returns from Europe to climb into the hot seat, entrusted with nursing Ambitious Dragon through today's challenging mile-and-a-half task.
Wins in January's Stewards' Cup and the Citibank Gold Cup a month later gave Ambitious Dragon the first two legs of the Triple Crown and have the horse on the verge of equalling River Verdon's effort in 1994, when Millard points out, the Triple Crown was slightly easier. 'Back then this race was only 2,200m, this is a proper test at 2,400m,' he says.
'We don't know if he will stay. Because he has so much speed, you tend to think he won't get the two-four. It is not as if he is a sprinter and while he is pretty quick over 1,400m, he gets the 2,000m.
'I'm perfectly happy he is in the condition that he can take a race like this, the champion that he is. If he doesn't stay, it's not the end of the world.'
A loss today would mean Millard's horse has fallen short on his three biggest days of the season, after two spectacular failures while the world's eyes were upon him. First came an uncharacteristic effort on International Day in the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup and then a disaster in Dubai on World Cup night when an over-the-top pre-race fireworks display caused the horse to uncharacteristically fire up, which was compounded by a virus.
Defeat would also open the door for critics to suggest the trainer and his owners have over-taxed the horse and put his future at risk, running at an unsuitable distance, lured by a HK$5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown.
'We wouldn't run him if it was a risk. If it was going to hurt the horse in the long term, we wouldn't even consider it,' Millard says. 'It won't do him any harm. If he gets beaten, he gets beaten. It is a unique opportunity and it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. The people in the team are going the extra yard, because they want to be associated with a Triple Crown winner.
'That's something you can talk to your grandchildren about. You were working there and you were there when that happened. That's what I am hoping for.
'We're just trying to go that extra yard and make sure there is no stone left unturned. In your own mind, you need to know that you've done everything and then it is up to the horse. As long as I am confident I have done everything I possibly can, to be in that race in his top form, I am happy.'
Age/sex: 5, gelding
Dam: Golden Gamble (by Oregon)
Owner: Johnson Lam Pui-hung and Anderson Lam Hin-yue
Career record: 19 starts, 10 wins, 3 seconds
Career prize-money: HK$37,621,600
Group One wins in 2011 and 2012 Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Classic Cup (1,800m)
Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby (2,000m)
Audemars Piguet QE II Cup (2,000m)
Stewards' Cup (1,600m)
Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup (2,000m)
Achievements and awards
2010-11 Horse of the Year, Most Popular Horse, Champion Middle-Distance horse, and Most Improved Horse