Time was when a post-season challenge for the international races at Sha Tin racecourse was a fairly commonplace objective for high-class horses still in good heart, writes Tony Stafford. Four contests, each worth in excess of £1 million to the winner, were attraction enough. In the world of post- and apparently still-present Covid, things have changed.
Seven European-trained horses set off for Hong Kong at the end of their European seasons. None of the one French, two British and four Irish took back a victory from yesterday’s challenges, but such is the generosity of the prize pool, four will return with six-figure hauls.
Transportation difficulties have been a major adjunct to Covid times in all spheres with regulations for horse travel being especially onerous. That Willie Muir and joint-trainer Chris Grassick would have the foresight to send the partnership-owned Pyledriver for the Hong Kong Vase took courage and determination to see the project through.
Pyledriver didn’t manage to win, but in finishing a length second under Muir’s son-in-law Martin Dwyer to odds-on Japanese-trained favourite Glory Vase – it truly was a glory Vase for the winner! - the Lambourn-trained runner matched anything he had ever previously achieved.
The second-favourite at 7-2, he lived up to that status, seeing off French-trained Ebaiyra to the tune of two-and-a-half lengths with Aidan O’Brien’s Mogul only sixth. In collecting £415,486 he easily eclipsed all the prizes he’d earned in his twelve previous starts, with five wins from his three seasons’ racing.
The equal youngest, at age four, with the other two Europeans, Pyledriver, who is still a colt – the winner is also an entire – must have more big pay-days ahead of him. Many plaudits, as well as Hong Kong dollars and other international currencies, can come the way of his entrepreneurial connections.
Only Mother Earth ran for European teams in the Mile and the hard-working 1000 Guineas heroine, coming on after Del Mar and the Breeders’ Cup, picked up fourth. That was worth £139k, supplementing Mogul's £37k for sixth in Pyledriver’s race. Ebaiyra picked up £188k for third there.
The Irish duo in the Hong Kong Cup, over 10 furlongs and the most valuable of the four races at £1.6 million to the winner, were unplaced, Bolshoi Ballet only ninth for O’Brien and Jim Bolger’s Irish 2000 Guineas winner Mac Swiney last of 12.
William Haggas, the only other UK trainer represented, did better, his Dubai Honour picking up £161k for his close fourth behind Japanese mare Loves Only You who was adding to her Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf win last month at Del Mar. Dubai Honour, under Tom Marquand, was running at least on a par to his second behind Sealiway in the Champion Stakes at Ascot last month.
I would imagine that Haggas and his horse’ s owner Mohamed Obaida will have pricked up their ears that Sealiway’s trainer Cedric Rossi, as well as Cedric’s father Charlie, who was Sealiway’s previous handler, and other members of the family have been arrested in Marseille in relation to enquiries into allegations of doping. Who knows, there could be some ramifications to come and maybe even a Group 1 disqualification in favour of Dubai Honour.
Back home in the UK, jumping continues apace but this past weekend must be possibly one of the least informative in relation to the Holy Grail of unearthing Cheltenham Festival winners. Indeed the two days of Cheltenham’s December fixture were more notable first for the astonishing level of demand for National Hunt stock at the Friday night sale at the track, and then for Bryony Frost’s absence from the meeting, than anything happening on the course itself.
True, My Drogo restored what in reality had been only a minor blemish on his record when smoothly erasing the memory of his earlier course fall to re-emphasise his candidature for the Festival, much to the relief of the Skeltons. Otherwise it was ordinary enough.
Bryony, cheered by the crowd at Warwick on Thursday upon the news of Robbie Dunne’s 18-month suspension with all four charges of bullying proven, was despatched by boss Paul Nicholls to Doncaster over the weekend where she had an anti-climactic two winner-free days.
I have been canvassing some trainer friends around the country and they have all noticed over the years instances of inappropriate behaviour by jockeys to female riders at different times. It may have been thought acceptable in the days when girls were far less commonplace in stable yards and on racecourses, but those days are long gone.
Now they are ever more prominent and respected thanks to the exploits of Hayley Turner, Josephine Gordon, Hollie Doyle and Nicola Currie on the Flat and in the UK Bryony and the Andrews sisters, Gina and Bridget, over jumps. In Ireland, Rachael Blackmore has picked up the baton relinquished by Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh and carried their achievements to unprecedented and unimagined heights.
In these days of improved nutrition and the resultant increasing in the size of successive generations more women, with their natural lighter weights have been needed to offset the scarcity of smaller male riders, especially for Flat racing. Some yards like Sir Mark Prescott’s would have to pack up – although his stable is a case of choice rather than necessity.
In those far-off days of Sir Gordon Richards and his generation, girl riders never got a look in and nor were they to be found too often in stables, despite their success at the top level in show jumping and eventing. Historic examples abound like Charlie Gordon-Watson’s sister, Mary, and Marion Mould, not to mention Princess Anne and daughter Zara Tindall.
In many other sporting spheres – football, cricket and rugby in the UK are the most obvious in terms of professionalism –women have become much more prominent and women’s golf has long been at the forefront of international sport at the highest level. Nowadays racing could not survive without its female participants.
Yesterday when I heard the words “Tornado” and “Kentucky” in the same breath I confess I was instantly confronted by an image of flattened barns, devastated meadows - possibly already under snow as is often the case in much of Kentucky through the heart of winter - with animals helplessly strewn far and wide.
Kentucky to me is first Lexington and its stud farms - an area I’d visited so many times between the early 1980’s and 15 years ago. Second is Louisville, birthplace of Mohammed Ali and home of the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been there a few times, too.
The tornado which on Saturday came in at 220 m.p.h. and flattened a candle factory in Mayfield, trapping it was thought more than 100 workers – 40 apparently managed to get out – was centred near the western border of the south-eastern state. Lexington is way across to the east and 75 miles due south of Cincinnati on the borders of Ohio.
That south-western part of Kentucky is apparently tornado country, a manifestation that occurs when cold dry air meets warm moist air. The cold air is denser so it settles on top of the warm air and forces it to the ground where the tornado is formed.
While the terrible loss of life and devastation to people and their property is tragic in the extreme my initial dread I confess did concern the horses. I feared the tornado could have reached considerably further east – Mayfield is 265 miles south-west of Lexington – but that it seems was unfounded. These occur regularly in the region near Mayfield, though never previously with this intensity or effect.
Declared the biggest tragedy in the history of Kentucky by Democrat Governor Andy Beshear, a 44- year-old lawyer who won the state’s top job by 0.2%, you could imagine the initial worries in the stud farms of the region as the mares prepare to foal down their valuable produce in the New Year.
Sales prices have been booming. We have been here before when studs have been enjoying good times only for the hammer blow to fall. It only takes a little adjustment to make things less rosy. Like a misplaced tornado for example!