John Size has trained three horses to win the Hong Kong Derby. Photo by HKJC.

Size has worked Derby miracles before but re-building Beauty Legacy would be his best one yet

Michael Cox

Michael Cox

For hutchishonkers.com

Michael Cox’s Derby Watch

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hong Kong Derby, Michael Cox will provide analysis for Hutchi’s Honkers as the next generation of stars builds up to the big race on March 20. The four-year-old series began with the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 27, continued with the Hong Kong Classic Cup on February 23 and culminates with the Derby on March 22.

 

26/02/20

Let’s face it, Beauty Legacy’s Hong Kong Derby preparation is broken and it will require a minor miracle for the headstrong import to turn things around in the three weeks left before the big race. Luckily for the horse’s mega-owners, the Kwok family, they have the man sometimes referred to as God training Beauty Legacy, a trainer with a history of messiah-like big race training feats.

John Size is unique in his approach to training yet loves to use the word “normal” to describe a horse’s preparation – slow and steady, no setbacks – and when it comes to his most recent Derby success, the laconic Aussie hasn’t been doing normal.

Size has won the Hong Kong Derby three times – Fay Fay in 2012, Luger in 2015 and Ping Hai Star in 2018 – and of those only Fay Fay’s could be described as an orthodox preparation.

Luger entered his four-year-old season as one of the leading chances but a heart irregularity sidelined him for a stretch and Size produced the horse on Derby day second-up after a 1600m Class 2 win a month earlier.

Before we get on to the next freakish Derby training feats, can we talk about Luger, one of the forgotten greats, for a moment? Luger never won again after that dominant Derby victory, suffering another heart irregularity next start before being beaten a short head when first up in the Group 1 Stewards’ Cup more than six months later.

Luger is one of the great “what could have been?” stories, Size saying of his gelding before that Stewards’ Cup:

“We don’t know how good he is and we might never know,”

said Size of a his horse that retired having won seven races from 13.

“A horse has to have a career to find out how good he is, and he might not have one.”

Size’s next Derby winner is still fresh in our memories but also fits the “what could have been?” category.

Ping Hai Star was still rated 77 and battling in Class 3, failing to win at three previous local starts, nine weeks before the 2018 Derby.

The Australian-import then rattled off three straight wins in handicaps, Size eschewing the four-year-old series, to climb to a rating of 103.

With two weeks between a Class 2 win and the Derby, Size sent Ping Hai Star to Happy Valley to trial eight days before the big race, a seemingly outside-the-box move, but one consistent with the horse’s preparation to that point.

Beauty Legacy is a different situation to Size’s three previous Derby winners in that he arrived at Sha Tin with exposed form in group races and a rating of 92.

That form and rating meant a guaranteed start in the Derby, but it didn’t mean Beauty Legacy was a ready-made contender – at least not in Size’s eyes.

Size saw faults in the gelding’s hard-going style and was intent on educating the tear-away and teaching him to use his energy more wisely.

At Beauty Legacy’s first start it appeared as though the new tactics and educational trials had worked a treat when an eye-catching come-from-behind victory put the horse at the top of many people’s Derby rankings.

Beauty Legacy was an impressive winner of his first Hong Kong start over 1400m. Photo by HKJC.

 

The win was a false dawn. A solid and consistent early tempo in a 1400m Class 2 meant Beauty Legacy didn’t have to relax, he simply trailed a strong speed and then was flattered as he sped past tiring leaders late.

While the critics raved, the always-circumspect Size was more sage.  “After I watched his races in Australia I thought he was going to take some managing so we’d have to contain that energy so he uses it in the correct manner,’ Size continued.

“He’s got some management issues in his racing manner so we have to iron those out more or less immediately.”

When faced with a more sedate and stop-start pace in the first leg of the four-year-old series, Beauty Legacy over-raced in sections – failing to use his energy ‘in the correct manner’ as Size put it – and finished fourth.

Then in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Cup there was another clear regression. With the step up in distance to 1800m, and even slower mid-race sectionals, Beauty Legacy resented being restrained and pulled even harder, tossing his head around in the back straight and then produced a listless sprint home.

So what does Size have up his sleeve with Beauty Legacy?

Size isn’t one for chopping and changing plans, but he is also a realist, and there is very little chance of a generous and even tempo in the Derby, a race in which the pattern is generally stop-start.

The most obvious change would be one of tactics and a return to the on-pace pattern favored by the horse’s connections in Australia.

Front-runners have had great success over the 2000m course in recent years with A Shin Hikari and Time Warp springing to mind as horses that have shown how hard it is to catch leaders that set testing sectionals, pinging from turn to turn in front at Sha Tin.

With no obvious leaders in the four-year-old crop and the race to be held on an “A” course that has recently favoured horses racing on pace, a tactical change must be tempting.  It would mean undoing whatever work has been done with the horse so far and tantamount to giving up on a project. If given full rein now, it is unlikely the horse will ever learn to settle, but maybe it’s too late anyway?

Size made his name in the early part of his Hong Kong career as a trainer with the ability to turn around problem horses, winning three straight titles and cementing his legacy.

That early success meant that he stopped trying to fix other trainer’s problems long ago. Size doesn’t accept many transfers and he receives even less high-rating PPs with 10 prior starts and two previous trainers like Beauty Legacy.

Fay Fay and Luger both started in Size’s stables as unraced prospects and Ping Hai Star had just three starts in lower grade Queensland races before entering the yard.

Starting from scratch with a horse has its merit and winning a Derby with a PPG is a rare feat; Size’s wins with Fay Fay and Luger are two of the three PPGs to win the Derby in the last 15 years (the other being Ambitious Dragon in 2010).

Douglas Whyte and John Size celebrate the Derby win of Fay Fay in 2012. Photo by HKJC.

 

Beauty Legacy may have arrived with top billing, but if Size can turn his charge around now it might trump all three of them for a training effort.

Size’s previous Derby wins were like patiently making a vase from clay – he had the raw material and presented it in perfect condition on the day – but given Beauty Legacy is racing right now, a Derby win would be more akin to sticking together a smashed terracotta pot and making it look brand new. It would take a brave punter to say Size couldn’t work another miracle.

 

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