Owner's Urgent Request answered

STORIES of punters arriving at the tote windows at Sha Tin with suitcases full of cash are something that might tickle the fancy of Urgent Request's owner Stewart Aitken, who is renowned for his battles with the bookies on British tracks.

Like many other serious players, retired casino tycoon Aitken, 74, is constantly engaged in a war of words with the major bookmaking firms, although one suspects he might have met his match in smooth-talking Ladbrokes man Mike Dillon, presently on the spot in Hong Kong.

Aitken seemed pleasantly surprised yesterday when told that no matter how big the bet, the multi-billion dollar Hong Kong tote would swallow the wager, virtually without trace.

'Since I've been having a good run with my horses in the UK, I find it harder and harder to get on my bets with the bookmakers,' explained Aitken.

'I have become a little disenchanted by it all, and I have constantly been thinking of getting out of ownership.

'Yes, it's a mug's game, but I happen to love it,' he added in his broad Scots accent and with just the hint of a smile.

Stewart Aitken, now famous for his exploits as an owner-punter, is looking forward to Urgent Request running in the Hong Kong International Vase. A quick, early-morning trip to Sha Tin trackwork convinced him that his grey colt is in good shape for the staying battle that awaits him.

'He seems to be as good, if not slightly better, in appearance than when I saw him before his last run, in Canada, in the Rothmans International at Woodbine. We've found him to be a good traveller - which is just as well, as the trip to Hong Kong is twice as long as the one to Canada.' The horse lost a total of six kilograms on the journey over from the UK, but has put back the weight and looks well in himself, although very much on his toes, as usual.

Aitken purchased Urgent Request from mega-rich Saudi owner Khalid Abdullah, and since being sent to Epsom trainer Reg Akehurst, the speedy grey son of Rainbow Quest has never looked back.

He has run some excellent races in Aitken's red and blue colours in the past 12 months, with arguably the best performance coming in the Rose Of Lancaster Stakes at Haydock Park in August when he defeated the subsequent Group One winner Cezanne.

Admittedly, Cezanne's rider set him too big a task that day, but the trail-blazing Urgent Request set up a huge lead and was fighting on all the way to the finish.

Cezanne, one of Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin stable in Dubai, went on to take the Group One Guinness Champion Stakes at Leopardstown under Mick Kinane - and is presently in training for the Group One Australian Cup in Melbourne in March.

Urgent Request is one of a dozen horses Aitken has in training in Europe. He has five with Akehurst at Epsom, one with John Fellows in France - and six in training in Prague.

His biggest wins as an owner have been Sarawat in the Tote-Ebor at York, as well as the very useful hurdler Jazilah, unbeaten in four outings over timber last season and a Cheltenham contender this term.

'Jazilah has been very good to me. One day I was able to get GBP96,000 on him and he got the money. I don't often put my money down and not collect,' he added - which is basically the reason, one suspects, why the English bookies are in no hurry to strike bets with this flamboyant character.

The inaugural running of the International Vase is the most significant yet for Hong Kong in its gradual upgrade of the invitation races that are steadily capturing the imagination of owners and trainers worldwide.

You only have to look at the wide international representation in the three races today to realise that Hong Kong has the potential to leave Japan for dead on the international scene. It is merely a question of when those in the driving seat elect to seriously expand.

The 2,400-metre Vase gives an opportunity for the overseas horses to hold a trump card over the locals, mainly because the distance is an extreme one for Hong Kong horses.

While Urgent Request is going to be very hard to run down - and will have jockeys at the back of the field scrubbing hard to keep in touch at half-way - I believe the Australian stayer Top Rating will prove a tough nut to crack. Top Rating won the Moonee Valley Cup in a muddling-run race in October, and looked well and truly up to the class when storming home in the Mackinnon Stakes at Flemington before finishing ninth in the Melbourne Cup. This race seems tailor-made for him.