Brutal draw raises stakes for Witness
Alan Aitken in Tokyo
'There's always pressure when he runs but this time he's back to 1,200m'
The spirit of Hong Kong Silent Witness will be forced to put his 'world champion' tag on the line the hard way in the $12.7 million Sprinters Stakes, 1,200m, at Nakayama tomorrow after a nightmare barrier 13 draw.
The great sprinter's position as world number one through his deeds at Sha Tin alone will be put fiercely under the international microscope should he be beaten for a third time in succession and the heat turned up higher with the wide starting gate.
'I didn't want to draw inside and risk getting boxed in, but 13 out of 16 is not the best draw we could have hoped for, either,' said trainer Tony Cruz. 'The horse is fit, eating well. He put back most of the weight he lost coming over and he's exactly where he should be. There's always pressure when he runs but this time he's back to 1,200m - this is his chance on Sunday.'
Jockey Felix Coetzee rolled his eyes and offered no printable comment on the draw but was bullish on Silent Witness. 'Every time he runs, the high level of expectation brings pressure but he's feeling like he does at Sha Tin and that gives you a lot of confidence,' said Coetzee.
According to local sources, Japanese punters were ready to bet against Silent Witness before the draw but that likelihood has increased, while the David Oughton camp continues to grow quietly optimistic with uncrowned Global Sprint Challenge champion, Cape Of Good Hope, from gate five.
He trundled through his workout yesterday under Brett Prebble, more crooner than rock idol, but the camp was cautiously upbeat even before the draw. 'That gate won't do us any harm, he'll give it a shake,' was Prebble's summary after Cape Of Good Hope breezed 400m wide out on the turf course, and left everyone happy.
'He worked as good as I've ever felt him. Alert, doing it easy. He normally lopes along and does it a bit tough in his work but today he's very light on his feet, fit and clean-winded.'
Trainer Oughton said the workout 'was pretty routine - he's never an inspiring worker' but he is as optimistic about his chances against Silent Witness as history will allow.
'Being totally realistic, there's probably always going to be two lengths between them wherever they meet,' said Oughton. 'If there is something in our favour it's that this is an away game, and my horse probably improves a bit when he travels out of Hong Kong.
'Two lengths is a long way to make up and it's hard to see us beating him but funnier things have happened.'
The statistics overwhelmingly favour Silent Witness - 10 meetings and 10 defeats of Cape Of Good Hope with a total of 33 lengths between them. 'Which doesn't look great but eight of those have been 1,000m and only two at this distance, which is more suitable for us,' Oughton said.
Asked if the uphill finish made any difference, Prebble said his plans wouldn't change but it could alter things for Silent Witness. 'They put a lot more pressure on in races here,' he said. 'On the flat track at Sha Tin, Silent Witness controls the races from the front, kicks when he likes and is too good. It could be more genuinely run here. I don't think the hill will bother Silent Witness. He's shown he can get a mile, but it will suit Cape Of Good Hope better than the flat track.'
Local speed machines Calstone Light O and Gallant Arrow drew nine and 16 respectively, so the Sprinters' Stakes promises to be strongly-run. That tempo will suit local favourites Admire Max and triple Group One-winning Durandal, beaten favourite in the 2004 Hong Kong Mile last time out.