He won three races on Sunday at Sha Tin, but for Paul O’Sullivan the fans still want to know “what’s next?” for Pakistan Star. Photo by HKJC.

Michael Cox’s HK Six-up: Could Pakistan Star shine in Saudi Arabia?

Michael Cox

Michael Cox

For hutchishonkers.com

08/10/19

Another strong trial from Pakistan Star on Tuesday morning confirmed what many believe; that he is the best dirt horse in Hong Kong and that the new richest race in the world – February’s US$20m Saudi Cup – would be well within the moody galloper’s grasp.

Pakistan Star is as famous for stopping as he is for his show-stopping wins, all of them on turf, but some form experts have the son of Shamardal down as a dirt specialist after carving out some scintillating sectionals on the surface in trials.

The six-year-old’s new jockey Zac Purton climbed aboard for his first feel in a 1200m trial on Tuesday and another impressive hit-out confirmed for him what his eyes told him long ago.

“He trials like a different horse on the dirt,” Purton said after Pakistan Star swept home in 22.1 seconds for his last-400m in a final hit-out before the Group 2 Premier Bowl on October 20.

Despite the fact there are no group-level races on Sha Tin’s so-called All-Weather Track, which is actually an American-style dirt course, Hong Kong-trained horses have punched above their weight on non-turf surfaces overseas.

 

It was five years ago this month that Rich Tapestry won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint and Michael Chang’s globetrotter performed well in Dubai.

Sterling City was a Group 2 winner at Sha Tin but dominated in the 2014 Group 1 Golden Shaheen on the then-Tapeta surface at Meydan, while Super Jockey – another horse a couple of lengths off the pace in top level turf races at home – went within a whisker of winning the same race a year later.

Even if competitive at 1200m, the 1800m of the race in Saudi Arabia should be right in Pakistan Star’s wheelhouse given his career best thus far is over 2000m.

Trainer Paul O’Sullivan says he is taking “a one race at a time” approach with Pakistan Star but owner Kerm Din is keen to take his horse abroad, whether that be to Meydan or Saudi Arabia.

 

Talented, sure, but still a headcase

Zac Purton offered some interesting insight about Pakistan Star after the trial and admitted the strong-willed animal “still has his quirks.”

One of the theories after Pakistan Star famously stopped during the 2017 Premier Bowl was that the horse resented some rough handling by jockey Joao Moreira behind the starting gates.

Purton will become Pakistan Star’s seventh race day jockey in the Premier Bowl. While he wasn’t about to start slapping the horse around, Purton wasn’t sure a soft touch would work either after some difficulties getting to the starting gates on Tuesday.

“On the way around to the start of the trial he stood and wouldn’t go, then started wheeling around in circles, so there is always going to be that question mark with him,” Purton said.

“I was just talking to him, but I don’t think talking to him gets very far.”

Once loaded and out of the machine, Purton said he was surprised at what style of horse he had underneath him.

“He gave me a different feel to what I thought he would,” Purton said.

“He looks like a big strong brute of a horse, but he doesn’t give you that feel. He wasn’t all raw power and speed, it was more like a lean, athletic galloper.”

And as far as Pakistan Star’s suitability to the 1200m, a distance the horse hasn’t competed over since his startling griffin debut over three years ago, Purton was cautiously optimistic.

“He always shows speed in trials and on dirt, but they are only barrier trials, you are coming to the grass which is firmer and there is a little bit more pressure on,” he said.

 

Time for HKIR to add a fifth feature

With the Hong Kong International Races now established as one of the world’s best racedays, is it time for the meeting to take the next step in its evolution?

The addition to a 1000m race for three-year-olds up the Sha Tin straight would add a new element to the day, giving Hong Kong a stallion-making event and some of the breeding industry attention and prestige the club craves.

A 3-year-old sprint in December would fit into a unique place in what has become a congested world-racing calendar.

The timing would allow Australia’s three-year-old sprint stars – some of them arriving five weeks after one of the southern hemisphere’s most exciting stallion-making contests, the Coolmore Stud Stakes – and northern hemisphere three-year-olds, a chance to go head-to-head.

 

Could a horse like Bivouac be attracted to compete in a HKIR 3yo over 1000m? Image from @superracing.

 

Two or three horses from Australia (quarantine permitting of course), a couple from Japan and a few visitors from Europe would be a realistic aim, and would form the backbone of a decent race. Throw in the best of the locals, which this year would include budding superstar Aethero, and you have got yourself an intriguing contest.

Perhaps visitors would be enticed by the opportunity of being able to sell a well-performed runner to Hong Kong owners post-race.

Yes, turnover on the new race would probably take a hit, at least initially, but the Jockey Club faced the same challenges when the internationals were first introduced more than 30 years ago.

Now, with HKIR established as a brand and here to stay, it is time to re-imagine the International Races for the true turf world championships they are marketed as.

The Sprint, Mile, Cup and Vase are great – but none of them attract the best overseas horses – and a three-year-old sprint would be another chance to assemble a world championship field at Sha Tin in December.

 

Outside rail bias

On the straight track, will we ever return to the days before the dreaded outside rail bias, when it was possible to win from anywhere?

Watching replays of Favelon’s back-to-back Hong Kong Sprint wins in 2000 and 2001 reminds us of a time when horses would charge down the course in lanes like a 100m Olympic Sprint final.

 

An increase in horse population and more turf trials caused the outside of the track, where turf trials are run, to become firmer and a pronounced bias developed.

Moving the barriers closer to the inside rail and a false outside rail on some racedays may have helped and some jockeys now believe the bias – particularly when the false rail is in place – isn’t as strong as it once was.

The general shape of races may not have changed much with jockeys keen to be nestled against the outside fence, but winners are coming down the middle more often, and it’s only a matter of time before riders adjust and we see even more space.

 

Lightweights wanted

We hinted at it here a month ago that Beauty Generation’s lofty rating could highlight a lack of lightweight options when the horse is entered at handicap level.

When Beauty Generation faced nine rivals in the Celebration Cup, eight of them were allotted the minimum weight, but now reality has hit home and with a full field expected in the Sha Tin Trophy on October 20 it has left trainers scrambling for riders.

With Beauty Generation’s rating now elevated to 138, it leaves only Rise High (124), Southern Legend (123) and Eagle Way (120) above the minimum when it comes to likely rivals in the Sha Tin Trophy.

 

Let’s see some proper gallops

This might fit into the category of “quality problems” when it comes to information for punters, but the Jockey Club could be smarter with the trackwork replays it provides punters.

Cue punters the world over asking; “Wait, you have publicly available trackwork times and replays and you care complaining?”

Yes, the Jockey Club is a world leader when it comes to transparency and information, providing floodlit trackwork facilities, horses with easily identifiable individual saddle clothes and a career-long database of trackwork records, including sectional times for key gallops.

A more recent addition to the website has been actual footage of morning workouts, which was previously only available on cable television.

Yes, it is great that trackwork is a cable TV show in Hong Kong, but there is a smarter way to edit the footage and make it more relevant to the customer.

As it stands, a horse enjoying a slow canter or nothing more than a leg stretch on the inner dirt – regardless of what stage it is in its preparation – is shown for an equal amount of time as a horse being pushed through crucial fast work in the lead-up to a race.

A case in point is Caspar Fownes-trained Snap Fit likely favourite in Wednesday night’s Kyoto Handicap (Class 3) after winning two-from-two last season.

 

Zac Purton will ride Snap Fit in race 9 at Happy Valley on Wednesday night for Caspar Fownes. Photo by HKJC.

 

Fownes has elected to go into the race without a trial, which is his prerogative, instead choosing to tune his sprinter up in a three-way opposed gallop on the dirt last month followed by three gallops against stablemates since.

Rather than show monotonous footage of horses ambling around the inner track on days off, punters would be better served seeing more of revealing workouts, prioritised in order of relevance.

 

 

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