Helene Vitality follows River Verdon's hoofprints to Melbourne
Helene Vitality's bid to bring back the Melbourne Cup to Hong Kong has a rare and special quality, but the David Hayes-trained stayer will not be treading virgin ground on Tuesday. It is eight years since Hong Kong had a Flemington pathfinder in River Verdon, then the best horse in the territory, although he could manage only 20th behind Jeune, trained by none other than Hayes.
David Hill, River Verdon's trainer, this week recalled the trip fondly yet realistically and with a wait-and-see view of Helene Vitality's chances. 'It was a little disappointing, I guess, to not be competitive but I knew River Verdon was already past his best at that time - but it was great to be there,' Hill says. 'It's still the only Melbourne Cup I've ever been to and it was a fantastic day.'
River Verdon had some official assistance at home in his 1994 Melbourne Cup campaign. One of the more arcane Melbourne Cup qualifying rules regards a horse having performed in a race of at least 2,300 metres on the flat but in those days Hong Kong racing distances finished at 2,200 metres. The Hong Kong Jockey Club virtually created a race in mid-September to allow River Verdon to meet the requirements and he opened his tour with a Sha Tin win over 2,300 metres, facing just three rivals and at odds of 1-20.
But an impact at the Melbourne carnival was another matter altogether - with Hong Kong's champion a rising nine-year-old - and River Verdon and jockey John Marshall finished 11th of 14 in the Cox Plate and 25 lengths behind Jeune in the Melbourne Cup.
Some measure of the task the old-timer faced lay in the weight he was asked to carry, 57 kilograms (125 pounds), or only 2kg less than the outstanding Irish stayer Vinnie Roe will carry on Tuesday at the peak of his career. Helene Vitality has been set to carry 54.5kg.
'For River Verdon's first run in the Cox Plate, we knew the small track there at Moonee Valley was always going to be against him, so our expectations were not high, but he needed to have a race before the Melbourne Cup,' Hill recalls. 'In the Cup itself, he tried his heart out but his legs were going and he didn't stay the 3,200 metres of the race. I'm not sure I would ever want to do that sort of trip again, not for the Cup. Perhaps for some of the other races, but not for the Cup. Two-mile races are a specialist trip.'
But while the results weren't there, Hill recalls there were no disadvantages at the visitors' facilities. 'We went down a couple of weeks before the Cox Plate and stayed at Sandown racecourse, where the European horses stay every year now,' Hill explains. 'The facilities were very good, a really lovely place to train a horse. When we came out of quarantine, they offered to let us move to Flemington but I actually preferred to stay there. I could not have asked for more than the help we got. Les Benton, who is in Dubai these days, was the guy in charge there at that time and he couldn't have done more. He really looked after us.'
Facilities are not an issue for Hayes' Helene Vitality, who is training out of the leading-edge Lindsay Park stables off Tony McEvoy at Flemington, but Hill is prepared to wait on whether that will be enough to bring any results.
'I'd love to see him do well for David and for Hong Kong racing, but he hasn't won for two years and I would probably like to see him do more here at home,' Hill says. 'I am not aware of the form of the horses he is racing, but I'd rather Helene Vitality was in better form going into it and he has never been tested at 3,200 metres.
'Having said that, if he does turn out to be a true two-miler, he will probably run a good race because, as I said, it is a specialist trip.'