Blazing a trail, quietly
Sha Tin's Saturday night meeting was undoubtedly the best of the season so far, with solid time performances produced throughout the classes. The highlight in terms of quality was division one of the Hong Kong University Alumni Handicap.
Northern Fire Ball's winning time of one minute and 37.8 seconds won't have set the world alight with excitement, but on yielding ground a Topspeed mark of 62 rates a solid enough effort at this grade, if below the winner's best. The runner-up, Viva Icta (71) was only a few ticks off his high of last season, and Sterling Town (78) showed the benefit of his reappearance to run third.
But it was fourth-placed Deauville who came out on top at the weights with a speed rating of 80. Again that may not seem anything special compared to his official handicap rating, but as the speed figures have proved time and again the class/handicapping system in the territory allows the top-grade animals to be elevated to an over-inflated rating.
That was the highest time rating achieved so far this season, and the fact that the Patrick Biancone-trained galloper ran to within a pound of his reappearance effort last season suggests he is in for another successful campaign at the top level. At the other end of the scale Follow Me offers sound advice in his name.
He showed improved form on his final two starts last season, clocking Topspeed ratings of 13 and 17 respectively, and in recording another, improved figure of 23 in the University Hall Handicap he has clearly continued on the upgrade. Racing off an official mark of just 10, it will clearly take a substantial increase in the weights to anchor this one, and with proven stamina from last term he could be one to run up a little sequence as he progresses in distance.
The Knowles Building Handicap could be another 1,400-metre contest to keep an eye on. Ever Triumph stepped up on his initial outing of the season to clock a personal best 43 when running down the lightly raced Rainbow Seeker (35). That pair finished a long way clear of third and, with the improved track work of the runner-up clearly showing in the race, they are two that can be expected to progress further. Away from the domestic front, there were a couple of races in Britain and Ireland which were well worth noting with an eye to a possible punt on the Melbourne Cup in November.
Oscar Schindler was highly impressive in landing the Irish St Leger at The Curragh on Saturday, and a speed figure of 119 clearly stamps him as one of Europe's leading stayers. At the moment his owner favours a crack at the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, while his trainer would prefer a trip to Australia. From a purely handicapping point of view it has to be the Melbourne Cup. Ascot Gold Cup hero Classic Cliche heads the weights of possible European raiders for Australia's greatest race, and is set to give Oscar Schindler 11 pounds. That undoubtedly makes Saturday's Classic winner a potential blot on the handicap.
Classic Cliche has a Topspeed best of 122, and even the most generous of handicappers would find it hard to argue anything more than say a 6 pounds superiority for the Godolphin-owned colt following Oscar Schindler's performance at the weekend. But there was a less obvious, yet potentially far more significant, Melbourne Cup 'trial' at Newbury, with Kutta producing an outstanding weight-carrying performance to dead-heat under 140 pounds in the Autumn Cup over 2,500 metres. Make no mistake, a speed rating of 108 ranks Kutta in the lower level of Group-race stayers with the promise of more to come.
But the Melbourne Cup weights had already been framed prior to the weekend's action, and Kutta is set to carry at least 25 pounds less than Classic Cliche, and is weighted more than a stone behind Oscar Schindler. There is a possible catch though. As absurd as it sounds, although Oscar Schindler escapes a penalty for winning a Classic, Kutta is open to a discretionary penalty of up to 11 pounds for winning a handicap of a penalty value in excess of A$25,000. Under the rules the penalty has to be assessed within 10 days of the win, and with luck the Australian handicapper may underestimate the significance of Saturday's performance. If he does, we could be in for a healthy return come the first Tuesday in November. Remember where you heard it first!