By Murray Bell
Top trainer John Moore was uncharacteristically hostile at Sha Tin on Nov. 11, demanding to know what more his champion Viva Pataca must do to be acknowledged as the best horse in Hong Kong.
Viva Pataca, starting a dominant $17 favorite (for $10), cruised to a one length victory in the Group II Cathay Pacific International Cup Trial, of 2,000 meters, earning a rave review from Darren Beadman and emphatically confirming his entitlement to be Hong Kong’s top-rated horse – a distinction he shares with Vengeance of Rain on an international mark of 122.
Moore was incensed that tipsters and commentators had favored up-and-coming galloper Packing Winner (Zabeel), with a five-pound weight advantage, over his established star, the winner of four Group I races.
"He’s the best horse in Hong Kong and the international handicappers rate him number 10 in the entire world, why isn’t he properly recognized?" Moore demanded. "Packing Winner is a nice horse and he’s run well, but how could people seriously be tipping him to beat Viva Pataca? We have a champion like this in our midst, why don’t people embrace him?"
Viva Pataca was a well-beaten third in last year’s Cup Trial, behind the Tony Cruz-trained Hello Pretty, but it was a different version who turned up 12 months later. And while not as dominant as he’d been in the spring when winning the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2,000m) and the Champions & Chater Cup (2,400m), Moore warned there is better to come.
"Last year, we had the virus in the yard and that was the reason. This year, everything’s been right. The horse is only second-up today, going 2,000 metres and the big races are still four weeks away," Moore continued. "That’s the day he’ll be at his peak. Today, he’s done what he had to do and you’ll note that Darren simply rode him hands and heels. He hasn’t touched him with the whip."
Moore and owner Stanley Ho Hung-sun, the 84-year-old Macau casino mogul , must now decide whether to target Viva Pataca for the HK$20 million Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup (HK-I) at 2,000 metres or the HK$14 million Hong Kong Vase (HK-I), at the metric mile and a half.
While Viva Pataca was simply too good, the performance of Packing Winner to finish second has almost certainly earned him the opportunity to represent his adopted home city in the Hong Kong Cup on December 9.
"I’m very satisfied with that, even though the winner was just too good," said trainer Peter Ho Leung. "We have no thoughts of running in the Hong Kong Mile – the Cup will be his race. I think he is capable of further improvement after he takes the benefit from this run.
"I can’t do anything about his domestic rating, but for the Hong Kong Cup we deal in international ratings and I’ll be adjusting his international rating in line with the form around him," Gray said. "While I doubt Viva Pataca has run to his best today, the fact Packing Winner has got within a length and five pounds of him is obviously a performance of considerable merit.
"It’s not appropriate to making definitive statements this early but I think you could say Packing Winner’s connections should be fairly confident that he’ll make selection for the Hong Kong Cup field."
Art Trader, the least fancied of Moore’s three runners, turned in a blinder for third, while fourth-placed Vital King enhanced his prospects for the Hong Kong Vase with a stout fourth, carrying the same weight (128 pounds) as Viva Pataca and finishing 2-1/4 lengths from the winner.
Although Packing Winner owns a domestic rating of 106 and can only be raised five pounds to 111 under local protocols for assessing minor placegetters in Group races, senior handicapper Nigel Gray said those shackles should not be an impediment to Packing Winner’s claims to a Hong Kong Cup berth.
"This was his first time against top-class opposition and he met a very top-class horse in Viva Pataca. I’m very happy with his performance when you consider there is 23 rating points between him and the winner, and I think he has justified a place in the international race," Ho Leung continued."It’s a decision we will have to make and we won’t be making it today," Moore continued. "I’ll have a good think about it, and be making my recommendation to Dr. Ho a bit later."