On the Rails
with Alan Aitken
One of the regular irks for those in the business of selling horses to Hong Kong owners is the weird obsession of local owners with the size of horses. For some reason, it has become ingrained in their minds - or those of their ubiquitous adviser friends, whose input is not to be taken lightly - that big horses are better, no matter what the reality might be.
It's hard to know where this idea took on gospel status but international time and a good-sized herd of visitors always brings some examples of how horses - and in this case they have to be good gallopers to get invited in the first place - come in all shapes and all sizes.
One would go a long way and see a lot of racing before encountering another little girl like Vallee Enchantee, the 2003 Vase winner tipping the scales at a pony-sized 815 pounds, who was placed again the following year.
While she was probably at the extreme end of the scale, the most recent international meeting had food for thought on the matter within a more regulation range.
Trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre prefaced the Vase by calling Daryakana potentially 'a great filly' and the unbeaten three-year-old kept her record intact when coming from last.
Her performance might have been towering, but the filly herself certainly isn't - weighing in at only 941 pounds - and the French in general showed the fallacy of the big-is-better syndrome.
Perhaps the best beaten run in the Vase came from Cirrus des Aigles, a gelding but also no giant at 982 pounds, while 21/2 hours later Vision D'Etat - a colt - showed himself one of the top 2,000m gallopers weighing in at a neat 1,024 pounds before taking out the Cup.
Fourth-placed Ashalanda (903 pounds) and 2008 Hong Kong Cup winner Eagle Mountain (965 pounds) also lent their weight to the argument.
On the other end of things, last weekend saw Healthy Contender compete at the cellar of Class Five notwithstanding that she is a big, strong girl at 1,187 pounds - the first time she has posted a body weight below 1,200 pounds this season.
That size hasn't stopped her tumbling straight down the ratings here like she fell into a well, from an opening 52 to a sub-20 mark since February.
A reasonable estimate of the average weight of the Hong Kong thoroughbred population might put it somewhere around 1,100 pounds. Given that more than 90 per cent of the population here is made up of geldings, which theoretically weigh 30-50 pounds less than they might have done as colts, thoroughbreds here are significantly more substantial than the best of the Europeans.
But bigger is not necessarily better in horses, especially once you get to 2,000 metres and beyond, as the French regularly show.
The average body weight - taken around 48 hours before competition - among the 22 European visitors for the internationals was 1,039 pounds, while the 20 Hong Kong defenders averaged 1,132 pounds. That difference of 97 pounds a horse or 9.4 per cent is a huge one between two groups of the same equine species.
Experienced bloodstock buyers, including Dan O'Donnell, who selected Derby winner Helene Mascot and one of this season's top classic aspirants in Beauty Flash, says Hong Kong owners simply won't accept small or medium-sized horses.
And if they do accept one, 'expert' friends quickly advise them to cancel that initial acceptance.
There is an emphasis on sprinting here and short-course sprinters, whether people or horses, do tend to be bulkier types, but assessing the worth of a horse based purely on its size is complete folly.
And when the last 10 winners of the Hong Kong Cup posted an average weight of just 1,054 pounds, and the last 10 Vase winners a mere 1,006 pounds, then there is a message being sent out that our owners seem to be missing altogether.