A few weeks ago at the Happy Valley day meeting, an incredibly drunk but relatively coherent Irishman began an unprompted critique of the races that day. Amazingly, he offered some insight in the end: “This racetrack,” he warbled, “it’s something else, there’s nothing like it in Kildare. But what about the breeding of some of these horses? They are rubbish. Where’s all the Sadler’s Wells?”
Well, Sadler’s Wells retired to stud in 1984 – about when this bloke started drinking – but he made a point. Drunk Irishmen aren’t the only people baffled by the breeding of some Hong Kong winners. It’s a place that turns pedigree analysis upside down.
Sadler’s Wells was a breed shaper and he did manage a couple of successes in this part of the world – Daliapour won the 1996 Hong Kong Vase and River Dancer won a Group One, but both needed 2,000m or farther. Sadler’s Wells’ two most noteworthy sons at stud, High Chaparral and Galileo, have had limited impact here despite record-breaking deeds all over the world.
If there were a ‘Hong Kong racing stud farm’ – that is, sires that seem to thrive in the unique and demanding jurisdiction – which stallions would be there? It might not be the obvious choices, although a genuinely good stallion, as long as he has some speed in his make-up, seems to be fine. But there’s also an apparent randomness to what works and what doesn’t.
A sire that is most definitely in the ‘works’ category right now is Holy Roman Emperor, who produced his 31st Hong Kong winner when Divine Ten romped home on debut on Wednesday night at Sha Tin.
Holy Roman Emperor, whose speed-orientated progeny have taken a real liking to Happy Valley, stands for a modest 20,000 Euros (HK$212,000) at Coolmore in Ireland. His barn-mate Galileo’s pricetag is “by application” and he doesn’t even rate a mention here.
While Holy Roman Emperor is probably punching above his weight in the east, he has far better credentials than the sires of some of Hong Kong’s greatest horses, including the best of them all, Silent Witness, who was by relatively obscure Australian-based US sire El Moxie.
El Moxie began his career in the breeding back lot of Tasmania, and before Silent Witness started his unbeaten run, the sire stood for less than A$10,000 (HK$73,000). The season after, in the midst of his star son’s dominance, his service fee was more than doubled. Before El Moxie died in 2012 he also produced Manfred Man Ka-leung’s dual-Group One winner Eagle Regiment.
John Size has trained two notable diamonds in the rough: Entrapment could have easily joined the ranks of the immortals had his burgeoning career not been cut short by injury, but he was by relatively unknown US-sire Halo Homewrecker; Electronic Unicorn was by the similarly named, but unrelated, US sire Housebuster – a hall-of-fame sprinter, but only moderately performed at stud.
Once a sire becomes in vogue, owners just want more. Ambitious Dragon has carried New Zealand sire Pins to the top of the Hong Kong sires’ premiership list a couple of times. Plenty of Pins progeny have followed, as have two of Ambitous Dragon’s little brothers, Triumphant Dragon and Ocean Power. Unfortunately, neither seems able to run out of sight on a dark night.
In the past, horses like English Group One winner Marju – the sire of champions Indigenous and Viva Pataca – thrived and while the current Irish star Galileo might be setting records recently in Europe with high-priced yearling sales, don’t expect to see many of his offspring here; in fact, there are none in training. Galileos need too far and take too long to develop for the sprint-dominated races and the “want everything yesterday” mindset of owners.
It’s all about speed as Amber Sky, a son of dual-hemisphere star sire Exceed And Excel, showed on Wednesday. Sacred Kingdom was by Encosta de Lago and Lucky Nine by Dubawi, both proven for success anywhere.
The Hong Kong International Sale’s executive manager, Mark Richards, is entrusted with finding prospects each season and said part of the problem in finding the right mix was that “the recipe for failure is easier to find than the recipe for success”.
There’s a lot that can go wrong once a horse gets here. Aside from the need for speed, the recipe for success includes a rock-solid temperament and legs that can cope with rock-hard tracks. But highly strung types by Fusaichi Pegasus or Tale Of The Cat can struggle to come to terms with the life of a racehorse at Sha Tin too, extreme humidity resulting in some sweaty looking beasts on raceday and plenty of parade ring meltdowns. Any horse requiring any sort of moisture in the racing surface will be waiting a long time to find some give.
One theory as to why there seems to be a wide spread of bloodlines is that horses are rarely bought out of catalogues here – they are purchased after proving they can gallop (well, that’s how it should work, although that’s only half the battle). Watch the race win or trial first, then make an offer.
There’s no consideration given to residual breeding value: if you are a colt or stallion in in Hong Kong, you better behave, because castrations are carried out on a weekly basis – the club even issues a friendly email reminder to media to say when an operation has taken place.
As of Monday just 36 of the more than 1,200 horses in training at Sha Tin or spelling at Beas River have their equipment fully intact, and there are only a handful of fillies or mares at any given time. The horses are here to race.
Who can stand up to the heat – both temperature-wise and in competition – matters more than what is on the page of a catalogue, and only in hindsight do sires become in fashion.