The actual awards were the most boring aspect of Champion Awards day, which became “tell-us-what-you-really-think” day thanks to Douglas Whyte, included a trademark “Sha Tin stampede for free stuff” and the once-scary and unfathomable prospect of Dennis Yip Chor-hong being named champion trainer began to dawn.
Just as most of the winners arrived in order so did the awards, all of them predictable. The only thing the big crowd didn’t pick, at least right away, was the venue for the time-honoured and ceremonial “throwing of plush toys by jockeys”. It would be held in the parade ring, not in the home straight, as is usually the case. The miscommunication caused an entertaining mini-stampede as punters clambered for the freebies – that being cheap stuffed toys.
Today thousands of New Territories residents are staring at a toy horse on their mantlepiece, reflecting that “yes, it was worth risking being crushed to death to have this small, non-lifelike recreation of a racehorse in my life”.
But what really lit things up, other than a couple of real horses – three-year-olds Designs On Rome and All You Wish announcing themselves as horses to watch for next season – was the post-meeting spray delivered by Whyte at arch-rival Zac Purton.
It revealed the ruthless competitive instinct that drives Whyte, who likened Purton’s “chirpiness” to sticking his hand in a beehive – “I hope when he takes his hand out of the beehive and he can see that the stings look like little ‘DWs’,” Whyte would later elaborate.
Like Whyte’s mock muscleman-flexing for cameras after a fall at Happy Valley two weeks ago, or pushing to return to trackwork the morning after a fall just to prove to everyone he is fine, yesterday’s chosen words delivered a pointed psychological message to Purton, aimed at eroding ego and confidence.
At the end of May, when Whyte was about to miss three meetings through suspension, he said he would remain tight-lipped until it was a mathematically impossible for him to be beaten, and added: “Let’s see what he can do while I’m away and watch what I do when I come back. I’ll do my talking when it is all over.”
Whyte fulfilled his promise and went on a tear. The lid was taken off the pressure cooker that is Whyte’s boiling interior and the steam directed at Purton. The challenge has been thrown down to the pretender in no uncertain terms for next term. Will Purton continue to push? Or will he return with his tail between his legs, fall into line and accept his lot in running second?
It would be unfair and too simplistic to say Brett Prebble never recovered psychologically, in a competitive sense, from challenging Whyte in 2009-10. Prebble’s following season was sabotaged by suspensions and then a drop off in winners and support from key stables last season.
A similar drop in performance from Purton would be understandable – there’s a price to pay for everything – and maintaining such a heart-on-sleeve approach will be difficult for the upstart young Australian.
But we predict a physically, mentally and emotionally rejuvenated Purton will return and attempt to slay the giant once again, possibly with a more measured and consistent approach.
Then again, Whyte might just have to get used to the “chirpiness”. From what we know of Purton, he won’t mind sticking his hand straight back in the beehive. In fact, he will probably go and get a big stick and try to knock it out of the tree.
On the verge of doing what Purton couldn’t is Yip, who is poised to cause a huge upset. What is the mainstream sports equivalent of Yip winning the trainers’ championship? It was put to us that it would be like Everton winning the English Premier League, and that’s a fair comparison. This isn’t like Everton beating Manchester United in a match, but finishing top of the table after a long and arduous campaign.
Yip has landed some massive psychological blows of his own at the past two meetings with recent transfer winners arriving first up for his stable – Cheers Joy (ex John Size) last Thursday and Jack’s Gem (ex David Hall) yesterday.
Nowhere do wins by stable transfers carry as much cachet as they do in Hong Kong, where the close confines and shared facilities at Sha Tin – not to mention the same 24 trainers duelling each other week after week – bring such a move squarely into focus.
The weight given to such successes can be a touch unfair, as so many stable transfers happen after a horse is at the bottom of a huge drop in the handicaps – as was the case with Cheers Joy and Jack’s Gem. Still, there was something audacious about Yip winning with a former Size horse to retake the lead last Thursday and the two first-up wins, as it stands, are the difference between first and second.
The sense of timing of those two wins has given Yip a psychological push of his own coming into Wednesday’s season finale – the fact they came from respected horsemen like Size and Hall gave them an exclamation point. When both winners arrived at double-figure odds you could see Yip’s chest puff out a little – he might feel less like a pretender hanging on for dear life to an astonishing lead and more like a trainer that deserves the title.
There’s still the small matter of nine races on Wednesday night though and while Champion Awards day might not have delivered many surprises, it seems certain the enthralling trainers’ championship chase still contains a few more twists.