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Longines Hong Kong International Races

Tony Cruz sharpens Hong Kong Mile champ Beauty Only with a blistering burst up the Sha Tin straight

Trainer applies tried and trusted method to get defending champion in top shape for title defence

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 2:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 December, 2017, 10:36pm

Trainer Tony Cruz is not only the living legend of Hong Kong racing, he is repeatedly proved his status as a trainer against the best on the planet in the week where Hong Kong invites the world to dine at its table.

This year, Cruz has representatives in all four international races and that includes defending Longines Hong Kong Mile champion Beauty Only, who will attempt to become only the second repeat winner of the Mile (Good Ba Ba won three straight from 2007 to 2009).

On Wednesday morning at Sha Tin, Cruz turned to one of his favourite tricks to sharpen up his charges in grand final week – a blistering rush up the straight on the all-weather track for just over 400m, out of the barrier stalls.

Beauty Only paired off with Vase contender Gold Mount, while sprinter Peniaphobia had Cup contestant Time Warp for company in a separate jumpout.

Beauty Only went like a rocket, clocking 24.2 seconds from the standing start (about 430m), the last 200m in 10.29. Gold Mount wanted no part of it and was beaten many lengths, while the reigning Mile hero cruised home.

Five minutes later, Peniaphobia showed the benefit of his recent racing and improved fitness with a half-length advantage over Time Warp, running slower times (overall and sectional) than Beauty Only (25.59, 10.38). This was still useful work by both horses.

It is 17 years since Cruz won his first internationals as a trainer with Silent Witness and Lucky Owners, each of them ridden by the great Felix Coetzee. Silent Witness returned 12 months later to land the Sprint again, while stablemate Bullish Luck was runner-up in the Mile.

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But Cruz has not rested on his laurels. He now has eight HKIR trophies on his mantelpiece to be the all-time leading trainer at the festival – two more than John Moore. To add further kudos, Cruz has assembled those eight wins from only 58 runners, at a handsome strike rate of 13.8 per cent.

For all of those 17 years, the fast and furious 400m dash from the stalls has been a part of Cruz’s arsenal. Even the mighty Silent Witness used to do them on command.

While rival trainers still murmur that such sharp pieces of work might ruin a horse’s state of mind and spoil months of work teaching horses to relax, the “proof of the pudding” is that such objections don’t hold water.

Cruz’s horses are almost always relaxed and well behaved on race day. But when those gates burst open for the big occasion, that relaxation gives way to lightning reflexes and the ability to take a prime, advantageous position. They are switched on.

On face value, Beauty Only’s form this campaign is below the calibre of his efforts in 2016, where he won the Jockey Club Mile (Group Two) on the way to the December showpiece. But a closer study of his performance ratings suggests otherwise.

Although he ran only fourth to Seasons Bloom in the most recent renewal of the Jockey Club Mile, he carried the five-pound penalty as a Group One winner. The weights and measures experts will tell you the victory in 2016 and this year’s fourth were the same performance in terms of sheer merit.

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Peniaphobia is not quite a defending Hong Kong Sprint contender – it is two years since he bounced brilliantly from the outside barrier and crossed to lead his rivals under an inspired Joao Moreira.

Last year he led again, this time for Silvestre de Sousa, and only went down by three-quarters of a length at the hands of veteran Aerovelocity.

In recent starts, Peniaphobia has been sporting his new middle-age spread and Cruz has had to step up the gelding’s work to trim him down. On Wednesday morning, the frenetic piece was another step in the right direction.