This weekend’s Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup looms as a fascinating crossroads for a number of horses, but it is unlikely that it will produce as good a finish as that of four years ago.
Indeed, the 2012 edition of the race has become even more timely with the retirement earlier this week of grand old Lucky Nine, who prevailed in a titanic struggle over Glorious Days.
This race tells you all you will ever need to know about Caspar Fownes’ galloper – a street fighter, doggedly determined, responding under pressure, coming off the canvas to fight another round.
The news of the popular warhorse’s curtain call was not shocking in the slightest – it was already anticipated that he would bow out after a final attempt at the KrisFlyer Sprint in Singapore , a race he won twice, but the Singapore Turf Club’s decision to remove the international races from its programme removed that incentive.
After his Hong Kong Sprint 10th, which ended up being his final run, jockey Brett Prebble spoke with plenty of love, affection and admiration for his favourite galloper, while admitting it was hard to ride the horse anymore.
No, not because the son of Dubawi wasn’t performing the same – he owed nothing to anybody – but because Prebble felt so bad asking him for an effort when he could feel the horse already giving everything he had.
He was that kind of horse. Genuine. As Prebble said upon his retirement on Tuesday: “He was a dream racehorse for any jockey – when you needed him, he was always there. He would give you everything and he would fight like a tiger for you.”
So why was he so popular? In the end, it came down to four factors: his longevity, his talent, his ability to overcome adversity and some of the most engaging connections in Hong Kong.
His extensive career spanned seven seasons, which in itself is not particularly remarkable, but what was out of the ordinary was his consistency at the top level.
From November 2010 until the final run of his storied career in December 2015, Lucky Nine ran in 41 races. An incredible 40 of them were in Group One or Group Two contests, the lone exception being the Chief Executive’s Cup, a Class One on the opening day of this season. His streak of runs in Group One and Group Two contests stood at 37, and included efforts in Japan, Dubai, Australia and Singapore.
It’s near impossible to find a horse with a similar record at the highest level. Sure, there’s longevity, but there are also peaks and troughs and opportunities to run in easier races, opportunities that are very sporadic in Hong Kong.
Look at some other horses renowned for longevity.
The final 35 starts of Australian warrior Takeover Target’s career featured 29 performances at Group One or Group Two level, but also three runs in Group Threes, two runs at Listed level and one in a quality handicap held to mark the return of racing to New South Wales after the disastrous equine influenza outbreak.
Irish speedster Sole Power continues to race at the highest level to this day, but look at the 42 runs he has had since he beat Starspangledbanner at 100/1 in the 2010 Nunthorpe Stakes. The majority have been at Group One or Group Two level, but they also include six Group Threes, three at Listed level and one Meydan handicap.
Put it in those terms, and Lucky Nine’s achievements are extraordinary.
He won’t go down as the best horse to race in Hong Kong. He wasn’t the most brilliant, the flashiest or the speediest, but he was honest, consistent and tough. He was a street fighter. He was dogged.
Take a look at his grit and determination when winning the Hong Kong Sprint in 2011, finally getting the upper hand of gutsy Entrapment and the brilliant Joy And Fun.
Not to mention that 2012 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup, a masterclass in resolve.
True, he did win his two KrisFlyer Sprints by big margins – three lengths in 2013, the best part of three lengths a year later – and there were some dazzling moments, like his Group Three National Day Cup win under 115 pounds in 2010.
But for the most part, he was not known for his acceleration but for his determination.
The amazing thing is, he was a horse plagued by issues. He was a bleeder. He had joint problems. Fownes believes that he was a better miler than a sprinter, but because of his issues, he could not be trained in a way that allowed him to maintain his form over 1,600m.
It’s a scary thought, particularly given his strength at sprint trips, not just in Hong Kong but abroad.
The final part of the puzzle was his endearing band of connections – jockey Brett Prebble, who had an incredible affinity with the horse underneath him; handler Caspar Fownes, who had a sparkle in his eye every time he talked of his old champion and produced training performance after training performance with the problematic gelding; and quirky and very popular owners, Dr Chang Fuk-to, Hong Kong’s leading gynaecologist and obstetrician, and wife Maria Lee Ming-shum.
A case in point: Dr Chang’s acceptance speech when Lucky Nine won champion sprinter at the 2014-15 Champion Awards. These awards tend to see the same speeches, the same sentiments, and it all becomes a little bland after a while. Dr Chang made the same points, but from the perspective of Lucky Nine – and while it seemed a recipe for disaster, he pulled it off with extraordinary aplomb. Just watch this little excerpt (start from 9:37):
The only comparable reception to a speech by an owner at a horse awards ceremony in recent years was Willis Horton, owner of America’s champion two-year-old filly Take Charge Brandi, at the Eclipse Awards last year. If only we could find a replay.
And so ends the career of a Hong Kong stalwart. Farewell Lucky Nine. I’m sure you will be enjoying those carrots from America and that grass from Australia for years to come.
TWITTER TRIBUTES TO LUCKY NINE
Awww have a happy retirement Lucky Nine, you will be missed pic.twitter.com/2i7fKZz8KZ— dayna (@rockonxruby) February 24, 2016
Happy retirement Lucky Nine!— Grammy (@Grammy007) February 23, 2016
Seven seasons performing on top level - a true racing warrior... https://t.co/24I55TEpn8