Hong Kong Mile

Even champions get travel weary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2012, 12:00am


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One wag commented that Hong Kong's Dubai team left town as the 'A Team' and will come back looking more like 'F Troop' - yes, you are forgiven if you don't know the 1960s American TV comedy - though that would be unfair to the sprinters.

Joy And Fun's effort in the Al-Quoz Sprint was outstanding, not only because he missed the start when the barrier handlers weren't holding his tail, but because jockey Brett Doyle may have overdone the catch-up tactics once he was dealt a bad hand at the start.

Joy And Fun charged through the field to make up the ground during the early and middle stages. The Dubai timing system shows Joy And Fun running 0.21 seconds faster for the first 400m than the winner, Ortensia, even though he came out several lengths behind her.

The eight-year-old then got through his first 800m in 46.18 seconds to hit the lead, so it was no wonder his final 400m was nothing flashy as his legs crumpled. Whether he might have won in other circumstances we shall never know, but Derek Cruz can take a bow for having the gelding in such great form at such an age.

Likewise, Lucky Nine was an honourable defeat behind Krypton Factor. It would be difficult to rearrange the sectionals of the Golden Shaheen to suggest Lucky Nine could have beaten the winner, but what has been apparent in two years now of Meydan on Tapeta is that you don't see many horses coming from the back to win on the surface. That mitigated against Caspar Fownes' runner when he drew wide, even with a solid speed.

But the US$5 million Duty Free, where Hong Kong reasonably expected to be in the finish, was a total flop. Jockey Matthew Chadwick suggested all may still not be well with California Memory, and Xtension was well held but not terrible vis a vis all but runaway winner Cityscape in finishing under three lengths from second.

Which brings us to Ambitious Dragon, who failed to turn up as favourite for the second time in an international standard race in the past four months.

Does the champion have a glass jaw when it comes to the international level, notwithstanding last year's Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup when he was on the crest of a tsunami? Is he, like Good Ba Ba, a backyard bully unable to take his form overseas?

The fact that Xtension beat him home comfortably - unthinkable at Sha Tin - is sufficient proof this wasn't Ambitious Dragon. And this was an occasion when the parade-yard 'lookers' would have confidently tipped what subsequently took place.

One of the quirks of World Cup night is the race programming. With the main three races still to run - okay, four last Saturday if you include the re-run after the World Cup of the disastrous staying race that saw three horses perish - there is an opening ceremony.

Fireworks accompany a big-budget presentation on the infield screens and a plane zooming down the straight. And it is very loud. (Not that Hong Kong can hold anyone to ridicule over this - we do the same at Happy Valley on International Jockeys' Championship night, albeit for a much shorter length of time.) Though the horses are a long way from the parade ring when this happens, it's difficult to imagine them being unaware of it all.

Jenny Chapman - aka Jenny From the Paddock - who reviews the parade yard every meeting for the Jockey Club coverage, told us that, typically, Ambitious Dragon is 'relaxed and very professional' before his races. In other words, the polar opposite of the horse who presented in such an agitated state at Meydan that jockey Douglas Whyte was not alone in fearing Ambitious Dragon might do himself an injury.

We're inclined therefore to simply throw out the performance as uncharacteristic - whatever the cause, the Dragon was off his game long before the race started.

And now reports have circulated that his post-race condition included a fever. All of which explains the poor run but does it also put him in the Good Ba Ba category? A horse who can't put his talent in a suitcase and take it out again somewhere else.

A couple of sage opinions surrounding overseas travel come from owners, including Johnson Lam Pui-hung, who told the Post he had originally been quite reluctant to take Ambitious Dragon to Dubai, for fear of tiring him out and not seeing him at his best on QE II Cup day.

Trainer Tony Millard was able to convince Lam to change his mind - now we can only wait to see if Ambitious Dragon becomes one of those many horses who have not come back from the desert quite the same.

Another owner who shone a light on the reality of international racing was former Jockey Club chairman Ronald Arculli, talking about his horse, Red Jazz, coming for the QE II Cup after finishing second in the Godolphin Mile.

Arculli was under no illusions about where his horse stood in any talent quest, but alluded to his ability to travel and produce what he does have.

'There are a small number of horses who are able to travel, that's the trick - the best horses don't necessarily travel well,' he said.

It was similar to a line from trainer Richard Gibson when he won a second Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase with Dr Dino as a globetrotting visitor: 'We can't beat the best in Europe, but he's a good traveller.'

Clearly Duty Free winner Cityscape is a good traveller. His Hong Kong Mile placing, a performance that had lengths on winner Able One, spoke to that last December and his one-act affair in Dubai screamed it for those who didn't hear it the first time.

(By the way, our prize for the best racing April Fool's Day joke was the one run through the Twitter account of Cityscape's trainer, Roger Charlton. 'The trainer' informed the world the Duty Free winner would be schooled over hurdles before leaving for Dubai, with a view to joining leading jumps trainer Nicky Henderson for the Cheltenham festival in 2013. Having recovered sufficiently from the celebrations on Monday, Charlton set about naysaying the prank.)

For all those who dreamed of horse racing becoming a global Formula One series, that ability to travel is the biggest obstacle and the greatest challenge.

Whether he was stirred up in Dubai too badly to perform, by the change of environment, the pre-race ceremonies or the imminent onset of a fever, for Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon it now hangs as the biggest question mark for his international reputation.