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For horses, the cramped confines of Sha Tin’s stabling confines are no place for the flighty or faint-hearted; or the fairer sex so it seems.
Recent champion racemares Black Caviar, Goldikova and Zenyatta prove the top girls can match it with the best boys around, but in Hong Kong the opportunities for females to shine are rare and the intense environment adds a degree of difficulty that make owners reluctant to import fillies and mares.
Among the 1,600 or so horses in training, by our count only six are female and that’s pretty much the norm.
The overwhelming majority are geldings but it hasn’t stopped some owners coming up with some incredibly effeminate names for male horses – Miss Piggy, Pink Bunny, Pinky Long Legs and Princess Beauty among the best. As if being gelded wasn’t enough of a blow, it’s probably hard to get respect as a bloke around the stables when your name is Princess Beauty.
There’s no breeding industry so there’s not much point building a record and reputation with a view to a future career as a broodmare and there are no restricted races for females either.
If the current crop of fillies and mares lined up in a race it would be more “bad types” than black type. The Derek Cruz-trained Pyschologist is the best of a bad lot which includes Diamond Start, who must be one of the worst imports after going winless in 11 Australian starts, mainly at provincial level. John Size will also have his training skills tested with new acquisition Queen Dragon, a three-year-old filly that went into work last month.
A fillies and mares race belongs on the same imaginary card as the John Moore Class One Cup and the Class Five World Cup. Other races could include a restricted race for horses with Dragon in their name (although Lord Dragon might have his hands full with Ambitious Dragon), a race for grey horses and the resurrection of a race where trainers get back in the saddle, obviously with a massively inflated weight scale.
This year’s BMW Hong Kong Derby marks 10 years since a female triumphed in the race – the David Hayes-trained Elegant Fashion winning for successful owner-breeder Gene Tsoi Wai-wang. The last filly to win the Derby before that was Corvette in 1976.
Elegant Fashion was already a three-time Group Two winner and ran second in the AJC Australian Oaks before being imported for her successful “second career”, which also included a couple of Group Two wins and eight placings at the top level.
Tsoi loves racing fillies and when King’s Rose rattled off five straight stakes wins in New Zealand as a three-year-old it obviously piqued the interest of a few trainers hoping they would get the chance to emulate Hayes’ feats with Elegant Fashion.
The simple reason Tsoi didn’t bring King’s Rose to Hong Kong was “she was delicate” and the reason Elegant Fashion thrived was “she was tough – like a man – and she had the mental faculties to cope”. Fillies are far more likely to go “sour” and lose the desire to compete when stabled at Sha Tin, but Tsoi believes they don’t get the TLC they need either.
“It’s not a friendly environment for fillies,” Tsoi says. “Everyday life for a mare in such a high-pressure environment is tough, and if they don’t get the tender, loving care they need, and if they aren’t settled, then they struggle.
“All over the world, stablehands are used to looking after fillies and mares, but here the staff aren’t used to it. You have to treat them differently. You bring in a three-year-old they struggle because there’s no races against their own age or sex, but if you wait until they are four, sometimes they are ready to let down and be a broodmare,” he says.
Even when they are successful, mares can be a handful to train at Sha Tin. Sweet Sanette was a speedster who finished third in the 2011 King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot but as the end of her career approached she was a menace to trackwork riders and stable staff.
Sweet Sanette may have been blessed with incredible speed, but also had a mind of her own. Trainer Tony Millard was forced to try to trick the finicky female into going on to the training track and would have to choose a different route to get to the track each day. But when it comes to options for training gallops, Sha Tin is no Newmarket and there’s only so many ways you can get to the one track.
As much as race fans reserve a special place in their hearts for the “queens of the turf”, we will see many versions of Beauty Princess before we see another Elegant Fashion at Sha Tin.