by Murray Bell
The Hong Kong Jockey Club extended a late invitation Nov. 25 to connections of Hawkes Bay to join a star-studded international lineup in the HK$14-million Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase (HKgr.I) at Sha Tin Racecourse Dec. 9.
Trainer David Hall confirmed the invitation, and said owner Daryl Ng Win-kong was keen to take up the challenge and run Hawkes Bay after his convincing win over 1,800 meters at Sha Tin Nov. 25. Ng’s father, Robert Ng Chee Siong, won the Vase in 2000 with the Sadler’s Wells stallion Dalipour, trained by Michael Stoute.
“I said before the race that if he could win that race, under the big weight of 132 pounds, then he deserved to run in the Vase,” Hall said. “Carrying those weights at the Class One level in Hong Kong is not easy, and the second horse, Fellowship, is very smart, so it looks to me like the form is solid. Naturally, with the top European horses coming, the Vase is another higher altogether, but the horse has earned his chance.”
Hawkes Bay, a slow-maturing 5-year-old by Vettori, has now raced 15 times in Hong Kong. His most recent win was his fourth since Hall acquired him in the summer of 2005 to fill Ng’s private-purchase permit.
“He has always looked to me as though he would stay, and the major thing has been teaching him to relax,” Hall said. “When he was a colt, he was quite headstrong and often wanted to go too hard in his races. But since being gelded, slowly but surely the penny has started to drop and he’s learning to accept restraint in the early part of his races.”
The build-up to the Dec. 9 Cathay Pacific International Races began to gain momentum with the arrival of Miss Andretti from Australia and Europe’s Horse of the Year Dylan Thomas from Japan. Japanese authorities consented to the departure of Dylan Thomas, even though technically they could have kept him there for 60 days, requiring the Danehill stallion to miss the Sha Tin race and go straight to the breeding shed at Coolmore Stud in Ireland.
Hall conceded a horse like Dylan Thomas--on a mark of 128, the highest-rated international horse ever to come to Hong Kong--is an intimidating animal to come up against after two years of purely domestic competition with Hawkes Bay.
“Equally, you can never run away from a single horse,” Hall said. “Dylan Thomas, great horse that he undoubtedly is, has been all around the world this year. He has trained in Ireland, he has been to England and back, to France and back, to America for the Breeders’ Cup, and then Japan on his way to Hong Kong. Not many horses can cope with that sort of agenda and perform at their best at the very end of the season.”
Hall also said his star sprinter Absolute Champion--the world’s number one sprinter in 2006 but something of the forgotten horse in this year’s Hong Kong Sprint, with popular focus being on Sacred Kingdom and Miss Andretti--is poised for a top effort Dec. 9.
Absolute Champion was reunited with Brett Prebble at Sha Tin the morning of Nov. 25, with the in-form Australian jockey taking the striking black sprinter out for a quiet spin.
Hall reflected on the gelding’s late-closing second to Sacred Kingdom in the Group II International Sprint Trial Nov. 17 and said Absolute Champion was aided by the race.
“He’s now a year older and has taken one more run this year to reach his peak,” the trainer said. “Whether he can ever repeat that peak performance last year, we won’t know until the big day. But he’s fit and well, his legs are good, he’s very bright, and I’m sure he’s going to give the two big names a run for their money.”