Three big questions for the end of the season
There are 19 meetings remaining in the season and some big questions remain unanswered. Nineteen meetings doesn’t sound like long, but it is roughly one quarter of a 83-meeting season and a lot can happen between now and the season finale on July 10.
1. Who is more likely to “slay the giant” and win their respective championship – trainer Dennis Yip Chor-hong or jockey Zac Purton?
First of all, the Dream Team of John Size and Douglas Whyte remain firm favourites to maintain the status quo and defend their crowns, although many expected them to be looking a lot more comfortable at this point, particularly Size, who trails Yip by one.
Despite the spirited challenge Purton has thrown out, a surprise answer to this question is Yip, purely for the fact he controls his own destiny. Throw trainers Caspar Fownes and Tony Cruz into the mix, too, as more likely championship winners than Purton. That pair are locked on 50 wins and trail Yip by three.
A few of Size’s much-vaunted first starters have faltered lately and if it stays close towards the end of the season Yip could throw his new-found patience out the window. He might get desperate for what will seem like a one-off shot at glory and start pushing horses for that one extra run, or squeezing an extra half-length with the application of blinkers, when not in the best long-term interests of a horse, as he chases the championship.
The seven-time champion Size will continue to do what he always does and put his horses first and let the results and championships fall as they may. He won’t put personal glory ahead of his horses.
As for the jockeys, Whyte went on a tear through March and April – peaking with his six-win haul, which took his lead to nine – after which many were declaring the fight over. To his credit, Purton has continued to ride with the same vigour he started the season with, riding consistently and remaining suspension free for long periods, despite his aggressive style. He has edged the gap back to four and made the jockeys’ championship a conversation topic again. What stands in Purton’s way is Whyte’s ability to erode his rival’s win total by gaining rides from the Australian’s strongest supporter, Yip.
Whyte has ridden nine winners for the Yipster this term from just 33 rides. As of Sunday, Purton was striking at the same percentage as Whyte for Yip – 27 per cent – winning 23 races from 86 for the emerging stable.
We’re not suggesting riding for Yip is a deliberate strategic move by Whyte to take wins away from Purton, but it is those nine wins (so far) that could make the difference in the championship chase.
Through 12-straight titles Whyte has learnt how to be on the right horse at the right time and extract the maximum amount of wins from them. Tellingly, eight of Whyte’s nine wins for Yip have come from just three multiple winners: All You Wish (three wins), Gurus Dream (two) and One Of A Kind (three). He was on the other winner, last-start victor Follow The Wind, at trackwork this morning as it gets set for another Class Four win.
Whyte plays the game better, at this point, than Purton. He has most of the stables on speed dial and he is still the rider owners want most – and that will ensure title number 13, regardless of how Size’s season plays out.
2. Is there anything that could happen for Ambitious Dragon not to win his third straight champion Horse of the Year crown?
Yes, but not on Hong Kong soil – the Singapore international meeting in two weeks holds the key.
Ambitious Dragon has already had a better season, from a historical and statistical perspective, than he did last term and is clubhouse leader in his quest for three straight Horse of the Year crowns. But with Tony Millard’s star put away for the term an overseas win in the Singapore Airlines International Cup by Military Attack would make him the winner.
The season’s HOTY race is a contest that looks a lot like last season when a Group One on foreign shores by Lucky Nine could have clinched it. In the end, it didn’t, although a Royal Ascot win by Little Bridge made it more interesting. Millard’s horse became winner almost by default, and his season was one where he fell just short of the lofty expectations his most dominant performances create.
One thing about the way Horse of the Year voting seems to be treated by the voting committee, which is made up of high-ranking Jockey Club officials and a handful of Chinese journalists. International Group Ones clinched overseas top internationals won at home, internationals trump Hong Kong Group Ones and Group two and Three races provide supporting evidence. Oh, and minor placings really don’t matter, otherwise Lucky Nine would have won the award last season.
Let’s look at the Dragon’s season achievements: An international Group One win at home in the Hong Kong Mile, plus two domestic Group Ones – all of them awe-inspiring and leaving no doubt as to who is the best horse in town. But this isn’t an award for “highest-rated horse” – it’s an award for who had the best overall season.
Military Attack is late on the scene and that fresh-in-the-mind factor will work in his favour, with the last memory of Ambitious Dragon also being one of defeat. And if Military Attack was to win in Singapore that would give him a decisive winning hand: an international Group One win claimed on foreign soil, an international Group One at home (QEII Cup), plus a domestic Group One (Hong Kong Gold Cup) and a couple of Group Three handicap wins, carrying weight for good measure.
You could make some sort of argument for Champions Mile winner Dan Excel if he were to win in Singapore, with international Group One wins at home and away, but he would still fall short of the Dragon’s achievements. Overseas wins from Lucky Nine in the KrisFlyer Sprint, or Glorious Days in the Yasuda Kinen would grant them a honourable mention, but would not enough.
Basically, it is Military Attack’s award to win or lose in Singapore.
3. Who will win Champion Sprinter of the Year?
Who knows? But as it stands, prepare yourself for a shock result from outside the square. Remember when Lucky Nine, Joy And Fun and Entrapment fought out the 2011 Hong Kong Sprint? Little Bridge was fourth and Sacred Kingdom was on his last legs back in 10th. Well, that was essentially the beginning of the end of an extremely strong era. Entrapment has retired, his potential never fulfilled, and Sacred Kingdom is also gone. Lucky Nine’s last two runs have been among the worse of his career, Joy And Fun is now nine and a tendon injury means Little Bridge has spent more time in his box than on the training track since he won last year’s King’s Stand Stakes. The locals got their tails kicked by Lord Kanaloa in the Hong Kong Sprint.
At the start of the season, veterans sagely noted that a group of young horses would inevitably fill the void that dominant group of sprinters left behind – they always do. Well, three-quarters of the way through the season and we are still waiting. John Moore has high hopes for Frederick Engels and Time After Time, but they are not there yet, while Amber Sky, Arrived Ahead and Best Eleven have been for the most part disappointing or beset by injury. None of the young group has stamped themselves as world class, aside from Eagle Regiment, but he has to be considered a one-dimensional straight-track speedster at this point.
As it stands, it’s between Eagle Regiment, Lucky Nine and, wait for it, Ambitious Dragon, courtesy of their wins in the three Speed Series races. And of those, Ambitious Dragon’s win in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup was the best win by a Hong Kong horse this season.
As mentioned earlier, placings don’t seem to matter much to the voters, but in this case could Eagle Regiment’s game third in Dubai swing it in his favour? Of course, Lucky Nine could clinch it in the KrisFlyer. It’s either that, or people will be looking back at the record books 20 years from now wondering how the hell Ambitious Dragon won Champion Sprinter of the Year for 2012-13.