Handfuls, head cases and a horse named Fat Choy Oohlala
Parade ring analysis is more than skin deep
In many sports, they say the game is something like 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent physical – and horse racing is no different. Even though thoroughbreds have a freakish aerobic capacity and circulatory system akin to a city’s water works – they can throw it all away in a sweaty lather of pre-race jitters and in-race misbehaviour.
Hong Kong racing seems to put the magnifying glass on everything – particularly jockeys, trainers and race tactics – but nowhere does horse temperament matter more in terms of racetrack success.
You see them every week in the imposing parade rings at Sha Tin and Happy Valley – horses trained up to the minute, but looking more nervous than a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
The monotony of training here and the lack of space leave many horses a shell of what they could be.
When a trainer here says his horse will get a break or spell, he doesn’t mean it is headed to the equivalent of a luxuriously appointed horse day spa, galloping and gallivanting through lush meadows. There are no lush meadows.
Trainers don’t really mean a “spell” as it is understood in other jurisdictions, places that have paddocks – and, even if there were the facilities to do it, it might not happen anyway. The trainers probably want to give their horses a well-deserved break, but pressure from uneducated owners and constant threat of stable transfers mean he keeps the horse in work. Maybe a week of swimming, at best, to freshen up, or a few weeks off work standing in their box.
Last night at Happy Valley, the winning trainer in nearly every race pointed to an improving temperament as the key factor in victory.
At his best, trainer John Moore says Sunny Fay is capable of winning in Class Two, but his worst is a long way below that. Last night, Class Three he was on, and won accordingly. He is just one of the many European imports that have succumb to the claustrophobic environment and stay anchored on a mark well below their best.
Another Euro headcase lines up in a Class One this Sunday at Sha Tin; Fat Choy Oohlala – or, “the Fatness”, as he is dubbed by his perpetually-frustrated trackwork riders.
Not only does Fat Choy Oohlala have what is possibly the most ridiculous name in the history of racing, he has a range of bizarre behaviour that make him a handful for Dennis Yip Chor-hong’s stable staff to even get onto the training track in the morning.
According to his main trackwork rider Saul Mc Hugh, a former jumps jockey from Ireland, "The Fatness" has a habit of backing into running rails, spinning around in circles and even “sitting down like a dog on the track” when not in the mood for a canter.
“He’ll just stop, and lie down in the middle of the track,” claims McHugh. “But we love him because he is a character.”
While Fat Choy Oohlala’s antics can be categorised as quirky, but there’s also some horses around town that could head into the parade ring fitted with a Hannibal Lector-style mask.
Three of our favourites challenge the premise; “there are no bad horses, only bad handlers”, and head the list of “horses that would be serial killers if they were humans”: Shanghai Pioneer – he nearly nailed rival trainer Danny Shum Chap-shing in the head a few weeks back before a race, and even appeared to charge fans standing at the edge of the parade ring last night at Happy Valley. Then there’s the ironically-named Jolly Good, there is nothing jolly, or good, about him. And Apollo Cavalier - he spots an innocent bystander five metres away and starts bouncing like boxer Apollo Creed from the Rocky films, as he gets ready to unleash a double barrel blow to their back. All three should be fitted with a red flashing light, not a red ribbon tied to the tail, to indicate they are a “kicker”.
Followers of @SCMPRacingPost have been provided with “mounting yard mail” through this season, with some success. But we have to bow down before the queen of pre-race, parade ring analysis, Jenny Chapman, from the Trackside team.
Picking the best from the yard involves far more than spotting the calm horse that isn’t sweating, or the one with the shiny coat – if that is what it took, Tony Millard’s impeccably-prepared and dressage-ready team would win every race. Throw Sean Woods and David Ferraris in that basket too, their horses always look like they’ve just rolled out of the showroom. On the other end of the scale, John Size’s runners – although clearly fit and well-prepared - rarely have a glow about them, the theory being that the master trainer’s daily swimming regime bleaches out their hair.
Chapman’s summation of horses is far more than skin deep – what is particularly intriguing is her take on how horse’s walk and spotting signs of joint stiffness. But what gives the analysis depth is the comparison – how many times have we heard Chapman say “But that’s just him”? It’s all relative, if they can walk around the parade ring looking in need of a walking stick, but then run a race anyway – then it’s worth noting for next time. Same thing for the head-tossing and tail-swishing handfuls - if a horse does it everytime, then maybe give it a pass.
But if Fat Choy Oohlala walks on to the track and sits down like a dog on Sunday, we’ll take that as a bad sign.