Class Five in a class of its own

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 March, 2013, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 January, 2015, 4:18pm

Of course every Hong Kong owner dreams of their horse becoming the next Ambitious Dragon, but the equal opportunity Hong Kong system still provides for the thousands of others who fall well short of their ultimate aim of winning the Derby and basking in Group One glory.

The worse performed a horse is here, at least in terms of ratings points, the closer he often is to getting a win; and once near the bottom of the ratings, it can still be an exciting – and financially fruitful – ride for owners.

As one trainer said to us last weekend: “Sometimes the owners don’t seem to care if it is Class One, Group One or Class Five – they celebrate just the same. It’s all about ‘face’ – brining your friends or clients to the races and showing off, enjoying the thrill of winning.”

There was nothing thrilling about the early part of Really The Best’s career. He needed a “not” prefixing his name, and it appeared he could actually be Really The Worst. Ten unplaced runs had him tumbling down to the basement level of the bottom grade – the dreaded Class Five for horses rated zero to 40. But off a rating of 20, the gangly gelding won, then won again, and scored on Sunday carrying 124 pounds. He will be a big hope in Class Five next time too.

I’m sure Tsen Yun-lei didn’t buy Really The Best with Class Fives in mind, but after facing the fact his horse is slower than play-by-mail chess, I’m sure he is grateful for any sort of return – let alone three wins in a row.

In the Tony Millard stable, Ambitious Dragon is obviously the king – but his far less heralded stablemate Epee De Hua might be the better example of a success story typical of Hong Kong racing. For a start, he has had three trainers in five seasons, a relatively moderate turnover, but symbolic all the same. All unraced southern hemisphere horses start off with a mark of]52, and Epee Du Hua has never gone higher.

Epee De Hua has no real redeemable features as a racehorse other than being sound and boasting a stout constitution that allows him to race 15 times per season. It took him 14 runs to get down to a mark of 15 before he won and since then he has bounced between about 30 and his current high-water mark of 42. Fifty of his 61 starts have been in either Class Five or restricted races. But his owners have had seven days to celebrate on, and plenty of other occasions when they’ve gone to the races with a chance.

Veteran trainer Peter Ng Bik-kuen calls them “elevator horses” – they take the lift, albeit a very slow and faulty one sometimes, up into to the bottom of Class Four and find it too tough, then come back to Class Five company and the process starts again with a win. But along the way they can win decent money and provide a pretty good time for owners.

Epee De Hua has delivered HK$2,973,500 for his connections – enough to cover the training fees a few times over and over 10 times more than the horse cost (A$32,000) as a yearling in 2007.

When three-time Hong Kong Mile winner Good Ba Ba clashed with Black Caviar last Friday in the William Reid Stakes, it provided a point of comparison with how good the prize money is here, and just quietly, how out of whack the prize money distribution is Down Under.

After winning 24 from 24, including 14 Group Ones – Black Caviar has only just budged A$6 million. Good Ba Ba won 14 times – but put more HK$54 million into the bank account of John Yuen Se-kit. If you include the extra A$20,000 Yuen greedily pocketed for Good Ba Ba’s unpopular comeback, that’s about A$1.5 million more than Black Caviar.

So a quick question without notice, to absolutely anybody who can answer it: why does Australian racing insist on paying its strongest group of horses – sprinters – the lowest stake money, and stacking up mediocre staying races, like the upcoming BMW in Sydney, an inordinate amount of money – only to have second-rate European imports take the cash?

Even if Epee De Hua and Really The Best couldn’t beat Good Ba Ba if he was 11 years old … wait he is, and thank goodness he was retired today. Start again, even if a couple of battlers like Really The Best and Epee De Hua never win outside of Class Five, they’ve done exceptionally well for horses that move like glaciers and that could easily be consigned to a backwater track, or worse, somewhere else.