What a day, and what a week. Three wins from four for the locals, just when it seemed the internationals might take the lot. A big-race double for Dougie, a pearler from Purton and a trio of world-class training performances ensured “fortress Sha Tin” remained at least three-quarters intact. Of course, there was that reasonable sprinter Lord Kanaloa – he went all right considering he was only rated the 44th best horse in the world going into the meeting. Let's look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2013 Longines Hong Kong International Races.
LORD KANALOA EXPLODES LIKE KRAKATOA
All of the signs were there during the week at trackwork – Lord Kanaloa was going to turn on something special for his racetrack finale. It wasn’t just the low-flying bit of "21s" on the Monday – his traditional race-eve rev-up was something to behold. Trackwork rider Shogo Yasuda had a vice-like grip as the sleek machine powered up the straight on Saturday, slapping the stallion on the shoulder with the whip as he kept him under a double hold. One journalist cleverly described it as “like sitting in a Ferrari in the garage just revving the engine”.
A great thing about blogs is that we don’t need words to describe how the workouts transferred to the track on raceday, we can just watch in awe again as he demolishes the Group One Hong Kong Sprint field, gapping them by five lengths.
Now the gauntlet has been thrown down to the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings committee to give Lord Kanaloa his due. A straw poll among visiting journalists indicated the rankings aren’t held in high regard by many of the sport’s independent experts. The knock is that they pander to the big studs and there is a lack of recognition for Japan, whose horses, even the Group Two-types, seem to perform well in big races wherever they go (e.g. Tokei Halo, a length second in Hong Kong Cup). Giving Lord Kanaloa some more respect in the way of a lofty, top five-in-the-world type rating can restore some confidence in the rankings.
Coming into Sunday Lord Kanaloa was rated 120, that is a number reflecting his best performance of this year – equal with Lucky Nine, Shea Shea and Epaulette. Now this isn’t as simple as saying, “Well, clearly Lord Kanaloa would give that lot windburn wherever he faced them”, but surely winning a Sprinters Stakes or a Yasuda Kinen is considerably harder than taking a domestic-only Group One at Sha Tin, an Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai, or the Doomben 10,000 in Australia.
Anyway, rant nearly over: It's now back to the World's Best Racehorse Rankings committee to make things right. It's true that the handicappers, co-captained by the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s chief lead-shifter Nigel Gray, have to work with facts and figures – not just sprout opinions like us pundits – but here's a chance to rectify a major anomaly.
GREAT TRAINING EFFORTS
Training horses in Hong Kong has a lot of benefits; lack of concern about financial hassles like chasing bills, or finding quality veterinary care are just two. But varied training facilities and flexible race programming for star horses headed to big races aren’t on the list of positives, which makes the wins of Glorious Days, Akeed Mofeed and, in particular, Dominant, all the more impressive.
John Size hasn’t stopped challenging “tried and true” ideas on training thoroughbreds since he starting shattering misconceptions at Randwick in the 1990s. To win an international Group One first-up for six months over a mile would seem absurd to some, but to Size it was “easy” – or at least he thinks Glorious Days is an easy horse to train.
Richard Gibson used blinkers in some key gallops to get the best out of Akeed Mofeed, who was so fat he looked like he had swallowed a 44-gallon drum early in his preparation, while John Moore managed the “impossible” and had Dominant looking a treat before the Vase.
It’s not just Size that shatters sensibilities and so-called racing wisdom – although he is racing’s version of Mythbusters. So many aspects of Hong Kong racing force trainers into a corner, of which the only escape is to come out swinging with ingenuity and open-mindedness. Kudos to all three horseman for a job well done.
Of course, without the superb ride by Zac Purton on Dominant, we wouldn’t be talking about Moore’s training effort. On Saturday morning we put it to Purton that he was under a fair bit of pressure leading into the big day: “It might be a Group One, but it’s just a horse race,” he said. “The fundamentals are still the same, it’s just that the prize money is more.” Zac was unlucky in the Cup on Miltary Attack, but walked the walk big time in the Vase.
The Australian showed why he is the runaway jockeys’ championship leader with a 10-out-of-10 ride. Going back from the widest gate, he coolly sat last, summed up the speed, spotted the leaders in trouble and didn’t hesitate in making a move when he had to. Yes, the jockeys on The Fugue and Dunaden – William Buick and Jamie Spencer – had some factors against them, namely Mount Athos coming back in their face, but let’s face it, they got their pants pulled down in public.
ROUGH RIDING FROM VISITING JOCKEYS
Maybe there should be a loudspeaker or some sort of bell at the 600m mark to alert visiting jockeys that it might be time to get moving if they are sitting out the back and the leaders have walked.
Purton played the home field advantage well, but The Fugue and Dunaden should have finished one-two. Not only did Buick and Spencer’s Vase efforts earn the ire of punters, but also on Wednesday there were some rough-and-ready efforts from the foreigners in the International Jockeys’ Challenge. Christophe Soumillon managed to get suspended for careless riding and dropping his hands in the same race, but there were a couple of other incidents that left a lot to be desired from a safety standpoint.
DIAMOND VISION MEETS TRAKUS
Trakus can’t be far off being utilised in a useful way – and when it is the GPS horse-tracking system should be a valuable analytical, and just as importantly, educational, tool.
Reportedly, reliable data has been collected all season now but we are yet to see it on the Hong Kong Jockey Club website, and have been getting only drip feeds of fascinating information on Twitter from the company that collects it.
Happy Lucky Dragon Win's gripe – and we have a few, not just about this, but life in general – is the use of a Trakus-driven “track map” on the right hand end of the Diamond Vision infield big screen at Sha Tin. This used to show one of the best camera angles in world racing, the patrol footage as the field swept around the Sha Tin home turn. The camera shot was so close and the definition so clear that with a set of "8 x 40" binoculars you could see the facial expressions of the jockeys as they were about to turn for home.
Now we get a graphic that shows us Sha Tin is in fact oval shaped (thanks for that), and helps us estimate where the horses are on said oval with a coloured bar roughly 50m behind where the leader actually is. Oh, and a handy reference section of numbers 1 to 14 across the top of the screen, with corresponding running position beneath each, which of course changes every few seconds. It only takes about a minute to decipher what's going on, by which time the race is over.
Meanwhile, the dumbest camera angle of all time (Japanese coverage excluded) – “leader cam” – continues to run in the centre panel, just to ensure we can keep tabs on just how fast Derek Leung Ka-chun is going on Leading City before he punctures at the 300m mark.
Happy Lucky Dragon Win is a fan of what Trakus could offer, but it can offer a whole lot more than annoying and completely unnecessary on-screen graphics. It's the data we want. At least we’ve been spared the “Chiclets” that make Singapore racing look like someone has spilled giant candy of the same name on the track.
THE PRESENTATION THAT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN
Lord Kanaloa's breathtaking Hong Kong Sprint win is a memory that will live long in the memory, but so will the shocking fall of Jwala and jockey Steve Drowne.
Put simply, the Hong Kong Jockey Club erred in holding the presentation so close to the stricken horse and rider.
Not for a second are we suggesting the assistance afforded to Drowne and Jwala was compromised in anyway. The care given to both was first class and every measure was taken by officials to ensure that happened.
Officials also checked whether Drowne’s injuries appeared to be life-threatening, and when they weren’t it was decided to forge ahead with the ceremony, marching band and all.
To say that all measures were taken to ensure best possible care of horse and rider is missing the point, no one is suggesting they weren't taken care of by those first on the scene.
The point is, it was insensitive and disrespectful to celebrate metres away from where the seriously injured horse and rider lay on the track. This was as Jwala's connections, beside themselves with grief, looked on and spectators wondered what the fate of Drowne was. He had remained motionless after he hit the turf.
Officials might have known that Drowne was conscious, but many watching feared the worst for the English jockey.
The presentation could have been scaled down and moved to where the post-race interviews are held, as is the case with Group Two races. Sure, the sponsors might not have got the exposure they would normally get, but would they really want a photo opportunity with the dreaded green screen in the background?
Below is a photo posted on Twitter yesterday by @mattamos75 (appropriately titled "The highs and lows of racing") showing the scene in the aftermath of the Hong Kong Sprint.