As Joao Moreira sat in starting gate number 14 on Peniaphobia in the moments before the Longines Hong Kong Sprint, he still didn’t know what his tactics would be: go forward and risk being stuck wide, or go back and face a scramble to catch the leaders.
The brilliant Brazilian jockey needn’t have worried, as Peniaphobia made up Moreira’s mind for him with a lightning jump, surging to the front in a dazzling display of sheer speed that salvaged some pride for the home team as he led home a clean sweep by the locals in the 1,200-metre dash.
After the race, trainer Tony Cruz said Moreira had his blessing to take control and lead, despite drawing widest.
“If you’ve got speed, you might as well use it,” he said.
Moreira wasn’t so sure after Peniaphobia’s most recent two runs saw him burnt up in battles for the lead that had resulted in defeats. “The plan was if he jumped well, I would send him forward, but if he didn’t I would try to get some cover,” Moreira said.
“I had to make a decision. To be honest, we thought there would be too much speed and if that was the case we would look for cover, but he jumped so brilliantly and he was already a half-stride in front of everyone else.
“He got to the fence, he was given an easy time from then on and he just finished so strongly.
“Honestly, I didn’t think he could win from barrier 14 but he overcame it and showed he is one of the best horses around.”
The win was Moreira’s 300th in Hong Kong and it was a race of milestones for Cruz – it gave the trainer a record seven international day triumphs as a handler, drawing one clear of John Moore, while it was a third victory for the local legend in the Sprint, after the famous wins to Silent Witness in 2003 and 2004.
Peniaphobia went one better than his second in the race last year as Hong Kong-trained runners filled the first four placings.
Moreira said the more mature four-year-old was now ready to take on the world and it seems he will again get that chance with Cruz talking about a return to Dubai, where the gelding was placed in the Al Quoz Sprint earlier this year, or even Royal Ascot.
“We’ll definitely enter for Dubai and maybe think about England as well,” he said.
For short-priced favourite Gold-Fun it was a third straight second on international day, after two runner-up finishes in the Mile, with trainer Richard Gibson lamenting: “Maybe international day just isn’t his day.
“He ran his heart out, but full credit to the winner, he is a great horse,” Gibson said.
John Moore’s third-placed Not Listenin’tome ran a solid race, without ever threatening, with Gibson’s Dundonnell fourth, but the visitors, for the most part, were disappointing.
The three Japanese-trained entrants ran poorly, although Straight Girl sat wide, and while Mongolian Saturday was the first of the international entrants home, even he had some issues navigating a right-hand turn in a race for the first time.
Lucky Nine turns nine at the end of this month and it seems the 2011 Sprint winner’s career is fast coming to an end after a listless 10th.
“I’ve got to think about his future,” trainer Caspar Fownes said. “I thought he was going great, and coming into the race I really thought he would run well and he just hasn’t put in.”
‘Slither of a positive’ forces controversial scratching of Strathmore
The drama had already begun before the Sprint when Tony Millard-trained Strathmore returned a positive swab and was a shock withdrawal in the minutes before the HK$18.5 million race.
All runners in Hong Kong are subject to urine or blood tests on race day. Strathmore’s sample showed the presence of the prohibited substance clenbuterol, but the horse’s trainer claimed contamination will be to blame.
The first sample was taken around 6am and after that screen flagged the presence of a prohibited substance, a second sample was taken, with the results returning confirmation in the lead-up to the Sprint.
Stewards then interviewed Millard and acceded to his wish to have the horse withdrawn from the race.
The South African trainer described the indiscretion as “a sliver of a positive” and later said it was likely Strathmore had fallen victim to a contamination of some sort.
“It looks like another horse has touched a rail, or a mafoo has touched a horse that had just been treated and then touched this one.
“There is a contamination, but it has happened at the wrong time and spiked today. Speaking to the former Jockey Club vet Brian Stewart, it would be out of his system tomorrow and maybe even today.”
Jockey Club chief steward Kim Kelly maintained that “a positive is a positive” and that the matter would be heard after an overseas laboratory examines the B sample.
Clenbuterol is a steroid used to help horses with respiratory problems but cannot be present in a horse’s system on race day. “It’s confirmed as a positive, this isn’t a threshold substance,” said Kelly, who wouldn’t be drawn on whether the levels in the test were indicative of any accidental contamination.
“There is a screening level, the investigative process has started and we will continue on.
“We will work with Mr Millard with his staff and try to ascertain how the substance came to be in the horse.
“We will wait for that B sample to come back from overseas and then let that process take its course.”
WHAT THEY SAID
“I thank God I was on board him, he was meant to win the race, the way he’s done things today. He gave me a beautiful ride, he’s so professional.”
Peniaphobia - Joao Moreira
“He broke fine. I had a good trip but no one chased the leader. They slowed down on the turn but I just didn’t have enough to come and get them.”
Gold-Fun - Christophe Soumillon
“I was very pleased. He gave me a two-length kick when I asked him to, but it wasn’t quite enough.”
Not Listenin’tome - Hugh Bowman
“He got a good spot and he ran very well. He always comes good at this time of year and I won on him this day last year.”
Dundonnell - Douglas Whyte
“He was relaxed but maybe a little too relaxed. He was a little surprised and never really took the bit. He didn’t know what to do. The experience of this trip will help him.”
Mongolian Saturday - Florent Geroux
“I had a lovely run inside. I didn’t have enough horse.”
Charles The Great - Gerald Mosse
“I wanted to take the lead but the winner went faster. He ran well and toughed it out.”
Mikki Isle - Suguru Hamanaka
“He ran nice and handled the bend fine. Maybe he was a little closer than he is used to. Anyway, he kept trying to the end.”
Green Mask - Joel Rosario
“She did not jump well so we had to travel wide. She ran very well.”
Straight Girl - Keita Tosaki
“He didn’t perform.”
Lucky Nine - Brett Prebble
“He jumped good and felt great. But he is probably better off on a straight track and does not like the hustle and bustle of going around a bend. He ran a similar race last year and went on to win in Dubai.”
Sole Power - Chris Hayes
“He ran OK but I thought he might be able to finish a bit more strongly.”
Sakura Gospel - Zac Purton
“He is just a better horse on the dirt I think - the track was a little bit too quick.”
Rich Tapestry - Pat Smullen