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Competition bites from Dubai to Hong Kong

Author: Howard Wright

10/05/2018
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The premier leagues in European football might have been sewn up weeks ago, but international competition in horse racing has never been hotter. Not if the events of the last couple of months from Dubai to Hong Kong are any indication. It was always going to be difficult for overseas trainers at this year’s Dubai World Cup Carnival, given that numbers were significantly down on previous series, by as much as nearly 100, according to the calculations of one senior local trainer. Results proved even more illuminating, and not simply because Godolphin farmed exactly half the races available. Godolphin’s extraordinary success, built on the consistency of Saeed bin Suroor being allied to the emergence of Charlie Appleby’s team as an even more potent force, definitely had an impact on numbers.

From saddling 24 winners between them of the 68 Thoroughbred races staged in 2017, including Dubai World Cup night, they advanced to a grand total of 35 winners from 70 races this year. However, other forces were at work, making it hard going for the overseas contingent to make inroads to the massive prize money on offer. According to the admirable ComeracingUAE’s website statistics, a total of 24 trainers shared the 44 winners that Godolphin did not annex in 2017. Of these 24 stables, 17 moved in for the duration of the carnival.

This year the figures were noticeably different, and notably down. A total of 18 trainers shared winners that did not carry the Godolphin blue, of whom 12 were in Dubai for the short duration. That makes up into a 25% drop in the number of non-Godolphin trainers who had winners at the 2018 carnival, and a near 30% fall in the number of non-UAE stables who were on the scoresheet. With next season’s fixture list already announced, and a record number of race meetings programmed, no doubt the race planners in the Emirates Racing Authority office will be hard at work, with their spreadsheets, ratings files and race condition book at the ready, once the summer break is over.

Theirs is an unenviable task, since as well taking into account the needs of the growing local equine population, they must factor in the threat of increased international competition, for the one certainty in a fairly uncertain world is that other jurisdictions are seeking either to expand their influence or simply hold on to what they have already. While Fawzi Nass came out of the 2018 carnival with huge credit, his four winners making him the leading overseas trainer, Mike de Kock had another disappointing session by his extremely high standards. For British trainers, though, there were more knockbacks than bouquets. In 2017, six individual British trainers saddled at least one winner.

This year the figure was down to just three: Charlie Fellowes, Denis Coakley and the rather ‘better known’ Richard Hannon, all tasting their first success in the UAE. None came on World Cup night. Either the lack of numbers or the wrong choice of horses, or both, was at work. The recent growth of the all-weather programme in Britain, both in terms of quantity and quality, is clearly having an impact, along with similar expansion in France and Ireland. More trainers are thinking twice about sending horses into the unknown of Dubai, if they can stay at home for more familiar targets, even though the prize money available bears little comparison.

A similar situation is emerging from Ireland, which notched two wins at the carnival in contrasting styles. Hit The Bid, from Darren Bunyan’s small yard on The Curragh, pulled off a first, second and third, before coming up short in the Al Quoz Sprint, while Mendelssohn, from the formidable Aiden O’Brien stable, jetted in among the last of the international arrivals and waltzed away with the UAE Derby. Ironically, O’Brien had given Mendelssohn a prep race, just three weeks previously, at Dundalk, Ireland’s newest racecourse and, with its allweather surface and regular Friday evening winter racing, the alternative to Dubai that puts Irish trainers almost on a par with their British and French counterparts.

The counter attraction of Britain’s six all-weather tracks, Dundalk in Ireland and Deauville in France are becoming a fresh consideration for the ERA’s race planning gurus, as they map out their objectives for the 2019 carnival. Not that they are the only ones puzzling over how to attract interest from overseas. The Hong Kong Jockey Club has found itself in a similar situation. The fixture on Sunday 29 April was the first for 15 years on which the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup, Champions Mile and Chairman’s Sprint, all Group One, were staged on the same card, and only the second in which all three had been open to international runners. In honour of the occasion, the HKJC dubbed it Champions Day. As with all such ambitious titles, reality proved rather different.

Champions of Hong Kong, perhaps, but not much farther afield, for the sum total of overseas interest was four. Blue Point, robbed of a run in the Al Quoz Sprint by a bloodied nose at the start, tackled the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, while three, ‘second division’ runners from Japan were split one each. The Japanese, so strong in Hong Kong’s international races in recent years, struggled to make an impression. Blue Point simply struggled, after being bustled along to hold a good position in the early stages but, having probably never gone so fast in his life, he faded in the straight to finish last. Disappointment for William Buick, Blue Point’s rider, lasted barely 40 minutes, for he produced a masterclass to win the next race, the QEII Cup, on Pakistan Star, for whom he was booked while in the air from England, after first Silvestre de Sousa, then Kerrin McEvoy had cried off the mount.

The cheers for Pakistan Star, as Buick nestled him through a gap between horses to lead before the furlong mark, were remarkable, for not everyone making their voices heard could have had a financial interest in the result. The fact is that Pakistan Star has become an enigma in Hong Kong, a YouTube sensation for his early late runs, then disgracing himself by coming to a stop down the back straight at Sha Tin. His antics prompted this correspondent to tout Pakistan Star as a possible for this year’s carnival. Maybe next year.

Howard Wright

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27 Sep 2018
Issue Number: Issue 648
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