Who has dominated the first half of the racing season?
Saturday at Sha Tin marks the halfway point of the season, but it already feels as though there have been enough highlights to fill up two seasons. Let’s go through the best rides, training efforts and individual horse performances of the first half of this term.
1. Zac Purton – Dominant – Group One Hong Kong Vase
Seemingly overmatched by classy European rivals and under-prepared (more on that later), Dominant delivered Hong Kong its first Vase win since 1998 – but it wouldn’t have happened without Purton’s pearler. Timing, awareness and poise all featured heavily in this master class. As two of the main chances, The Fugue (William Buick) and Dunaden (Jamie Spencer) were cluttered back through the field, an opportunistic Purton pounced before straightening with a split-second decision that won him the race.
2. Joao Moreira - Same World - Group Three January Cup
When you ride 44 winners from 195 rides, striking at 23 per cent, in Hong Kong – there has to be some cracking rides among them. But this was a breakout performance of sorts from the gifted rider – whose usual M.O. is jump, run and flow – where he brought some in-race awareness and tactical nous into play. After enduring a bumping duel with Zac Purton down the side, Moreira sensed an opportunity to escape being trapped three-wide, taking advantage of a slack speed and booting forward. Executed with unflappable authority.
3. Douglas Whyte - Charles The Great - Group Two Jockey Club Sprint
Past his prime? Please. Whyte might be losing his grip on number one seed in town, but this was a superb ride, with categories of instinct, smarts and straight-up courage all covered. Knowing the best going was closer to the rail, Whyte shows patience when the sprint goes on, sticks solid and times his run to perfection.
4. Olivier Doleuze - Ensemble - Class Three Handicap
It’s no surprise that those who still believe there is no grandstand side rail bias on the Sha Tin straight course, or think it is over-estimated, also happen to be members of the Flat Earth Society. Drawn three on an 11-1 shot, Doleuze bounces Ensemble out and daringly crosses in front of the field, including the 1.5 favourite Bundle of Joy with Whyte trapped in the centre-track quick. Getting to the conveyor belt on the outside first wins it, but Ollie gets bonus points for incorporating his trademark, fully extended, “stretch-over-the-neck” push in a short-head finish.
5. Joao Moreira - Twin Turbo - Class Four handicap
One factor that should be working against the Magic Man in his rookie season should be unfamiliarity with the quirky Happy Valley circuit, but he has not only mastered it in a short space of time, but has come to dominate there. Moreira has 22 wins at the smaller track already, five ahead of the next best in Purton. The win on Twin Turbo has a hint of the Same World ride, but with some extra degrees of difficulty. You’ve got a messy, muddling race where the early leaders look like they are humming along, but aren’t really. Moreira gets one off the fence right when he needs to and simply takes the race by the scruff of the neck in the back straight when he commits to an early move at the 600m.
BEST TRAINING EFFORTS
1. John Moore - Dominant - Group One Hong Kong Vase
As good as Purton’s ride was, preparing a horse for a mile and a half race against a crack field of European stayers on the smell of an oily rag – using only a flat dirt track, a couple of turf gallops and trials, and two unimpressive lead-up runs – requires some skill. There is a very good reason locals have such a poor record in this race, and Moore overcame the obstacles to have his stayer looking and feeling superb on the day.
2. Richard Gibson - Akeed Mofeed - Group One Hong Kong Cup
Akeed Mofeed came back from summer holidays looking more like a water buffalo, and so fat he was leaving footprints in the concrete tunnel on the way to the training track. Judicious use of blinkers in trackwork, but not on raceday, dialed the effort levels up, and the got the tummy tucked in. Gibson poured the work on while not breaking the big fella down, and at the same time resolved the horse’s habit of over-racing. Now Pan Sutong has a stallion prospect on his hands and a shot at the world’s richest race next month. In the hands of a lesser trainer, Akeed could have instead ended up the world’s biggest polo pony at Pan’s luxury resort in Tianjin.
3. Andreas Schutz - Little Dreams - back-to-back Class Two handicaps, Happy Valley
From hard gallops to no gallops...at all. Schutz somehow got Little Dreams to the races without so much as the eight-year-old placing his aching feet on a track. Swimming and leg stretching laps of the trotting is all the injury-plagued gelding does, yet Schutz got the best out of the French-bred import for three great runs, including two wins.
4. John Size - Glorious Days - Group One Hong Kong Mile
Maybe more was made of Glorious Days being first-up for six months than should have been, as the horse was never seriously injured or out of work for long. But still, Size is a master and had his horse cherry ripe for the day, looking the best in the yard and walking the fine line between fresh and fit without a lead-up run.
5. David Ferraris - Bear Hero - Class Two handicap, Sha Tin
How did we know this was a great training feat? Because Ferraris said so straight after the race, and so he should have. Bear Hero was an exceptionally talented young horse whose myriad problems began the day he tore half a hoof off at the start of the 2011 Group One Coolmore Stud Stakes at Flemington. Bear Hero hadn’t won in more than 18 months – and ran just once last season – and in that time he had three rounds of arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips.
BEST INDIVIDUAL HORSE PERFORMANCES
1. Lord Kanaloa - Group One Hong Kong Sprint
The performance that finally gave the Japanese machine his due and lifted him into the top five of the World’s Best Racehorse Rankings for 2013. Lord Kanaloa beat a world-class sprinting field by five lengths in slick time (1.08.25s).
2. Glorious Days - Group One Hong Kong Mile
OK, a bit of crossover here, but as good as Size is to get his horse right, the performance itself looked on face value to be a step up from anything else the miler had produced previously.
3. Amber Sky - Class Two, Sha Tin
Amber Sky has since won a Group One, and is on his way to Dubai for the Group One Al-Quoz Sprint, but it was his Class Two walloping of a very strong field on a Wednesday night at Sha Tin that had the wow factor. After a disappointing end to 2012-13, all eyes were on the Exceed And Excel speedster and he zipped up the straight in 55.81 seconds carrying 133 pounds, winning by 5-1/2 lengths.
4. Able Friend - Group One Classic Mile
Able Friend hadn’t been let off the leash before the Classic Mile and the scary part was, he probably wasn’t here either. This monster dispensed with what many believe was the best Classic Mile field ever assembled with complete disdain. The John Moore-trained four-year-old went from generation next to generation now with an explosive turn of foot that left rivals gasping.
5. Luger - Griffin Trophy
Admittedly he did as expected against far inferior rivals, but the class is obvious every time the Size-trained three-year-old steps out. Luger is one for the future and is with the right man to bring him along patiently. A worrying aspect post-race was a swollen joint and a vet report featuring alarming terms like “tendon” and “sesamoidean ligament injury”. Size said on Wednesday night the injury sounds worse than it is, and the youngster – who is spelling – would return on schedule, after a six-week break.