So what ingredients go into making a “cult horse”?
A horse with the type of wild popularity that transcends the sport and reaches into the mainstream, that brings people back to the track.
Well, judging by the oohs, ahhs and eventually wild cheers that emanated from the Sha Tin faithful during and after Pakistan Star’s electrifying win on Sunday, this rising star has fan-favourite and marketer’s dream written all over him.
The “oohs” were when Pakistan Star flopped out of the gates last, the “ahhs” came after the horse latched on to the field and started making ground and the cheers were for one of the most memorable finishing sprints ever seen by a backmarker at Sha Tin.
So let’s count the ways Pakistan Star is working his way into the hearts and minds (and wallets, of course) of race fans - for it takes more than just ability, even of the freakish kind this horse is showing, to earn true cult status.
Some type of quirk and idiosyncrasy helps, and Pakistan Star has plenty: first and foremost his tendency to miss the start, which results in a heart-in-mouth, come-from-behind pattern. Then of course is the ability to rattle off final sectionals that very few horses can match - it’s a very watchable package - especially for the novice fan.
You also need a backstory to capture the public’s imagination - and how many do you want with a horse that transforms from lazy, lumbering giant to 1,100-pound rocket ship in the space of a few strides?
You’ve got the horse’s trainer Tony Cruz; handler of Hong Kong’s greatest ever horse, Silent Witness, winner more races than anybody in Hong Kong - counting wins as both jockey and trainer - and by far the most popular racing identity with locals. Then there’s jockey Matthew Chadwick; the comeback kid, Cruz’s protégé and one-time “next big thing” out to fulfil his own destiny as a champion senior rider.
So trainer and jockey; check, check - but then there is one from left field and a real X factor, the owner Kerm Din, a Hong Kong-based Pakistani businessman who has been blown away by his horse’s popularity in his homeland.
Social media phenomenon, internet sensation, call Pakistan Star what you will, within minutes of the three-year-old barrelling through his last 400m in 21.44 seconds (for non-racing fans wondering what that means, it’s quick), the horse’s second freakish win had already been liked, shared and retweeted hundreds of times. Who knows, maybe there was a kid in Islamabad who is now wondering what this horse racing stuff is all about.
The horse is sure to be even more of a hit in Pakistan now that he is rocking green and white blinkers with hood, featuring the white star of the proud nation’s flag on the front, and word is there is already a Pakistan Star “plushie” in production (that is a stuffed toy in the horse’s likeness, for those not up on the lingo).
Scary part about this second win was that a few paddock watchers reckoned Pakistan Star was as soft as a stuffed toy, with a bit of a belly, and there are those other areas the youngster can improve in terms of focus.
This horse is a real character; Pakistan Star stubbornly dug his heels in when jockey Matthew Chadwick first went to the barriers, bringing back memories of the horse’s first ever-public appearance at Sha Tin.
That was back in March when the then three-year-old almost refused to as much as canter before the Hong Kong International Sale.
Maybe Pakistan Star will overcome these worrying characteristics and woeful starts - and the son of Shamardal will have to if he is to fulfil the 2017 Hong Kong Derby destiny already mapped out for him - but for now it helps create the type of sporting theatre horse racing is best at producing.