If Glorious Days wins the Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo on Sunday, he still won’t be crowned Champion Horse of the Year – Military Attack has that honour sewn up – but all that proves is that, just like Group One races, not all Horse of the Year awards are created equally.
John Size might not win champion trainer either – that race seems to get more tantalising by the meeting - but that doesn’t mean he isn’t the best trainer. But if Glorious Days does reverse a seemingly disastrous Yasuda Kinen result from 12-months ago, the horse’s progression will provide a perfect illustration of what it is that Size does so well: mindful education of racehorses to consistently reach their best potential.
A season with wins in the Group One Stewards' Cup, Group Two Jockey Club Sprint and a season-capping Group One in the Yasuda Kinen would be enough to win Champion Horse of the Year in some seasons – including last term - and that's how Glorious Days' 2012-13 record will read if he triumphs in Tokyo.
Ambitious Dragon won the second of back-to-back awards last season, despite his failures on the biggest days being just as memorable as his wins – however dazzling and dominant they were. In 2011-12 the Dragon won the Group Three National Day Cup, Group One Stewards' Cup and Group One Hong Kong Gold Cup.
This season it could be argued that there are three horses that have had better seasons than that – the HOTY award winner-in-waiting Military Attack, Lucky Nine and California Memory – and add Glorious Days to that list if he wins the Yasuda. Come to think of it, even Ambitious Dragon has had a better season than he did last term, but he isn't going to three-peat.
Just like the “Most Valuable Player” awards in American sports, Champion Horse of the Year seems a loose definition open to interpretation, and is voted on by high-ranking officials and a handful of local media. There are no real rules or criteria – other than one, and it's a crazy loophole: a horse must win a category, i.e. champion sprinter, miler, middle-distance or stayer, to be eligible for the main award.
Why is that crazy? Well, let’s imagine a complete freak of a horse comes along (let's call him Super Happy Lucky Dragon) that wins a Group One Sprint first up, then wins the Hong Kong Mile on international day. Super Happy Lucky Dragon later wins the QEII Cup, and backs up to win the Champions & Chater Cup – it’s once in a lifetime stuff, but not completely inconceivable. Each of those wins sits in a separate category though, and if there were a better-performed horse in each of them (again, long odds, but not inconceivable) then one of Hong Kong’s greatest ever horses could miss out on the award. Future generations wouldn't be able to look back in the record books and think, "Gee, that Super Happy Lucky Dragon must have been good", and that would be a travesty.
Of course, we say “better-performed horse” because Horse of the Year doesn’t mean “best horse”. Best horse? That would be Ambitious Dragon, at least until Military Attack or someone else can consistently beat him fair and square to take the heavyweight belt.
The definition for Horse of the Year that works for me is “What horse comes to mind when you think of that season? And which horse’s collective performances define that season?” It's fine that it comes down to opinion, point score systems don't work. Racing is all about opinions after all, who is better than whom. There is no definitive answer. The club could open the voting up to more members of the media and get a broader perspective, but that's for another blog.
A win in Tokyo by Glorious Days (Hong Kong Group One and Group Two at home, Group One away) would create a group of outstanding contenders, but his seasonal record still wouldn’t stack up to that of Military Attack (Hong Kong Group One, International Group One, a couple of Group Threes at home and an International Group One away). But even if Glorious Days and his trainer are destined to go home without trophies on the final day of the season, let’s give them their due now. The gentle progression of Glorious Days was a portrait of patience by Size, and an example of his calm but forthright nature – he has an ability to cast aside outside influence and put the long-term interests of his horses first.
When Glorious Days arrived with Size, a dominant maiden win in New Zealand made he seem like a ready-made racehorse to most, yet he was given four trials and it was more than five months before Size put him in a race. That’s three, or even four, months longer than most would wait (Or, to be fair, "could" wait - given the pressure exerted by owners on the lower ranked trainers).
Then came the HK$6 million Classic Cup for four-year-olds in January last year. Glorious Days had won three-from-three over 1,400m and would have gone into the 1,600m Group One and started close to favourite. But, instead, Size kept his horse at 1,400m and contested the Chinese New year Cup on the same day, where he made it four on end. There were plenty of whispers around the Sha Tin trainer’s stand that Size was “mad” not to have taken the cash and glory and have Glorious Days beat up on his own age group in a rich and prestigious event. We even had one trainer suggest to us that Size had even been unfair and disrespectful to Glorious Days’ owner by not taking on the Classic Mile. Of course, Size also had subsequent Hong Kong Derby winner Fay Fay in the Classic Cup, and avoided a clash there, but the battling nature of Glorious Days' win later that day perhaps justified Size not stepping him in trip right away.
Glorious Days was battling feet problems, as many horses do in Hong Kong because of the hard tracks. Most would be swayed by an owner not wanting to hear about problems, and just wanting a runner in the biggest race of the day, but Size won't be swayed. In the majority of stables, Glorious Days wouldn't have just been in the Classic Mile - he would have been locked in for the Hong Kong Derby, regardless of how unsuitable 2,000m might be.
After that fourth victory, three narrow seconds followed at group level, and all the while the trainer resisted the urge to put blinkers on the still-developing four-year-old. Good trainers will tell you that putting blinkers on a horse isn’t a simple case of getting an extra few lengths out of them – they might get a short-term, one-off result, but they can also cause a horse to over-race and learn bad habits. It wasn’t until this season that the shades went on, and while there was still an immediate improvement in performance, it was also long-lasting – Glorious Days is now a more tractable and responsive racehorse.
Then of course, there is last year’s Yasuda Kinen, where Glorious Days looked completely out of his depth. It was as if he was left at the gates thinking, “which way did they go” as the field sped away - although it did seem as though there were bonus points on offer for leading after 400m. But even then, it didn’t get any better after that – Glorious Days was so lost he may as well have been in downtown Tokyo, trying to negotiate a four-way pedestrian crossing.
Douglas Whyte can’t be left out of the conversation when talking about the way Size educates his animals – this is the champion jockeys’ reaction after last year’s Yasuda: “He is going to digest it all and he is going to come back next year and just ping the gates and do what he is supposed to be doing". Dropping Glorious Days in the deep end last season seems to have not hurt the horse so far, and Whyte's words may well prove to be prophetic - but the true test will come at Tokyo on Sunday.