Three weeks ahead of the Hong Kong International Races (HKIR), the home team tuned up in the final course-and-distance preps at Sha Tin on Sunday. Former Horse of the Year Werther laid down a marker for the December 10 Hong Kong Cup (G1), despite being less than fully cranked in Sunday’s Jockey Club Cup (G2), while Mr Stunning confirmed his status as a rising star in the Jockey Club Sprint (G2), and progressive Seasons Bloom scored a breakthrough in the Jockey Club Mile (G2).
Werther was dispatched as the 6-5 favorite in the about 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Cup, with the betting public persuaded that his class edge would be sufficient in this second start off the bench. Trainer John Moore believed so as well, even in light of his status as the 128-pound highweight, and the fact he left the New Zealand-bred “slightly underdone” in what was still a prep. The hero of the 2016 Hong Kong Derby and Queen Elizabeth II (G1), and this year’s Hong Kong Gold Cup (G1) and Champions & Chater Cup (G1), was indeed too good for them.
Well handled by Tommy Berry, Werther launched a sustained rally from about midpack to edge up-and-coming Time Warp, who herded the favorite farther out onto the course. But Werther didn’t let it disrupt his momentum, stopping the clock in 2:01.52 and enjoying the bit of ease in the “good” course.
South African Group 1-placed Nassa, who’d collared Time Warp in the Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (G3) last out when receiving eight pounds, was third in their rematch at levels. Gold Mount closed stoutly for fourth, possibly setting himself up for a tilt at the about 1 1/2-mile Hong Kong Vase (G1) next month.
Werther, who was deprived of a chance at the 2016 HKIR due to injury, now appears poised for a mighty showing come December. The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s David Morgan noted that the Tavistock gelding was “blowing hard” right after his prep win, underlining that he’s entitled to be even stronger for the HKIR.
“That was a cracking good run considering it was his second run this season,” Moore said. “His fitness was really tested and he will improve for this run.
“The speed that Harbour Master went up front today really tested his fitness level, which wasn’t 100 percent. We got away with it and now we go to the Hong Kong Cup. He’ll come away from this race in better fettle for that grand final.
“He’s not fully fit and he’s beaten them all there carrying a five-pound penalty, so that gives us confidence for three weeks’ time,” Moore said.
Berry was of the same mind.
“I said before today that he’ll be spot on for December and I think that showed,” his rider said. “He just ran out of gas a bit the last 100 meters and Joao (Moreira on Time Warp) took me off my course a little bit where he lost his balance. All in all he’s going great and I’m looking forward to December with him.
“There’s probably another 10 percent to come, but even with the race being run the way it was, it sort of made us make up a fair bit before the corner, which probably took a bit of dash out of him as well. In a normally-run race, he probably would have been able to sit a little bit longer and would have shown a better turn-of-foot.
“Three or four things went against him today and he still got the job done. The two main reasons why he didn’t pull away from them was that he was running out of condition and he was taken off his course a bit.”
“He’s exactly where we want him to be – there are exciting times ahead.”
In the Jockey Club Sprint, 2-1 second choice Mr Stunning capitalized best of all not only on the muddling tempo, but also on the horrifically bad luck of favored Lucky Bubbles. As front-running Peniaphobia took a breather, the go-slow maneuver had the effect of stacking up the field behind him, like cars coming up to a developing traffic jam on the road. Lucky Bubbles, with nowhere to go on the rail, took the worst of it, checked repeatedly, and never saw daylight. Thewizardofoz didn’t have the same kind of problem, being hung out wide, but the race shape was all against him.
Mr Stunning had two indispensable qualities – the luck to avoid the snarl, and the ability to adapt to the race shape as he found it. Flaunting his finishing speed in the hands of Nash Rawiller, the Australian-bred rolled by 1 1/2 lengths to top a John Size trifecta. Stablemates Amazing Kids and D B Pin fought out the minors, while fourth-placer Peniaphobia barely thwarted a superfecta for the yard by holding Size’s Thewizardofoz to fifth in another photo. Lucky Bubbles was ninth in a race that holds no meaning for his Hong Kong Sprint (G1) chances. Indeed, Aerovelocity suffered a similar hatchet job when last in the 2014 Jockey Club Sprint, and he gained revenge on HKIR Day.
As the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Andrew Hawkins pointed out, Mr Stunning’s final time of 1:09.33 is the slowest since the Jockey Club Sprint was lengthened to 1200 meters (about six furlongs) in 2006 – clearly a function of the pace.
“They’ve all run very pleasingly,” Size said. “Mr Stunning seemed to dominate today, but it all depends on the way the race is run in three weeks. That race could be run at a different tempo, which could give us a different result. Mr Stunning still has to produce it again in three weeks, but if he pulls up well, he should be able to repeat the run.
“This preparation, though, he has done everything perfectly. He’s obviously a nice horse to train, he’s relatively straightforward and similarly, on raceday, he’s pretty good for the jockeys too.”
Although the nature of Mr Stunning’s victory reflected the particular circumstances of this prep, the Exceed and Excel gelding wasn’t winning out of turn. Rapidly climbing the class ladder after his eye-catching career debut at Happy Valley, he captured his first Group attempt in last April’s Sprint Cup (G2), and finished a gallant second to the better-trip Lucky Bubbles in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1). Last time out, Mr Stunning took advantage of the better trip to deny Lucky Bubbles in the October 22 Premier Bowl (G2), and the tale of trips continued here.
“He’s an absolute star, he’s so push-button,” Rawiller said of Mr Stunning. “Today, he jumped first out of the gates and I dropped my hands on his neck and he just came straight back under me. He was a dream to ride throughout the run. Even when the pace slowed up dramatically, it probably put the whole race out of whack, but he’s nimble on his feet and he was able to capitalize on that.
“I was able to roll forward into the race and he put it beyond doubt at the 300m, he was travelling very comfortably and it was just a matter of letting him go to win the race.
“Mr Size is a master at dealing with these types of horses,” Rawiller said. “There are going to be horses around him that will improve, just as he will, but I think he’s going to be the one to beat, that’s for sure.”
If the race shape unduly flattered anyone, it might have been runner-up Amazing Kids. Given his past proficiency at five furlongs, a mad scramble off a tepid pace arguably suited him better than some others. His rider, Brett Prebble, freely admitted that Amazing Kids “was probably lucky to run second – the third horse (upwardly mobile stablemate D B Pin) should have beaten him home.”
While Werther is well proven at the highest level, and Mr Stunning is on his way after three Group 2 laurels this year, Jockey Club Mile hero Seasons Bloom was the lone Sunday prep winner who previously lacked a stakes win. That’s one reason to view his success as perhaps the day’s most opportunistic, along with the fact that the runner-up, multiple Group 1 star Helene Paragon, ran like a horse who needed this run to bring his fitness up to speed for the Hong Kong Mile.
Yet it wouldn’t be advisable to dismiss Seasons Bloom, who went off as the 5-2 co-favorite with reigning Hong Kong Mile winner (and defending Jockey Club Mile champion) Beauty Only. After all, the Australian import performed honorably behind ill-fated Horse of the Year Rapper Dragon in all three legs of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Series early this year. Runner-up in the January 22 Hong Kong Classic Mile, Seasons Bloom was third in the Hong Kong Classic Cup and fourth in the Hong Kong Derby, his efficacy diminishing as the distances increased.
Trainer Danny Shum turned him back in trip, and Seasons Bloom has progressed to win three of his past four. He was coming off a late-running second in the October 1 Celebration Cup H. (G3) to Beauty Generation, a fellow Four-Year-Old Series veteran whom he was spotting eight pounds. Back at levels on Sunday, Seasons Bloom turned the tables, despite a tough trip posted wide.
Under Joao Moreira, Seasons Bloom outkicked Helene Paragon by a half-length while finishing in 1:34.13. Beauty Generation, forward throughout, held third from Beauty Only, who turned in his best effort this preparation in a rattling fourth. Beauty Only was a 128-pound co-highweight along with Helene Paragon, the runner-up in the 2016 Hong Kong Mile, and both were conceding five pounds to the rest of the field.
Moreira noted the strength of the beaten rivals’ form.
“Based on what he’s done today, you would think he’d be able to run well in the Hong Kong Mile next time,” his jockey said of Seasons Bloom, “because he beat some of the best horses in Hong Kong today, and he had to make it tough, being exposed three wide.
“Danny left the tactics in my hands; he didn’t give me specific instruction, I was happy to help him to get going because he doesn’t have much early speed. I was able to cross a few horses and get to a position three off the fence, obviously it wasn’t ideal but at least he had cover and I got him to relax in a position just better than midfield.
“Once we straightened up, I held my nerve a little bit and he used pretty much everything he had in the last furlong, and he gave me plenty. Danny gave him a break and that paid off today.”
“He’s not the biggest horse,” Shum said, “so I’ll try to keep him fresh and happy now. He has a big heart and I think he’ll run a good race in December – we’ll try our best.”
But Helene Paragon will likely be at his best three weeks hence, jockey Berry reiterated.
“As I said to everyone before he ran, he was definitely going to need the run,” Berry said of the Moore trainee. “I think that showed today. He peaked at about the 100 (meters), he had a decent blow when he pulled up so I’m very excited for December now.”