Author: John Berry

RUNNING UP A sequence is hard to do, anywhere in the world and at any level. It’s actually easiest to do at the very top level (assuming, of course, one has an outstanding horse) but at any level it is very, very hard. Two horses on different sides of the world extended their winning run last weekend: Golden Sixty in Hong Kong and Minella Trump in England, and each deserves a tip of the hat. In Hong Kong, Golden Sixty’s ongoing dominance remains unshakeable.

He is not undefeated (he finished unplaced on the last of his four starts in his first campaign in Hong Kong, as an autumn 3yo in the latter stages of the 2018/19 season) but he doesn’t fall far short of holding a clear sheet, with his record currently standing at 18 wins from 19 runs. In theory, he should not be beaten in Hong Kong in the immediate future because he is the best horse trained there, significantly better at distances from 1600m to 2000m than any other horse trained at Sha Tin.

However, once or twice a year, most obviously at next month’s Hong Kong International meeting, he has to race against top class overseas horses, and that obviously makes things tougher. Even so, he is likely to win the HK Mile again this year, just as he did last year when his rivals included the previous year’s winner (the Japanese-trained Admire Mars) and the last start Breeders’ Cup Mile winner (the Aidan O’Brien-trained Order Of Australia).

If one has the best horse in training, it is possible to ensure that he is the best horse at the weights in all of his assignments if one picks and chooses carefully, most obviously avoiding handicaps, which is generally feasible nowadays in every racing jurisdiction around the world, unlike in previous eras when there were not sufficient ‘weight for age’ opportunities to enable a top class horse to race either only in ‘weight for age’ company or merely infrequently.

Golden Sixty did actually contest two handicaps at the start of last season. He won both but he could hardly have failed to do so, the HK handicapper having made an eye catching blunder in allotting him a ludicrously light weight in both events, despite his having gone through the previous season unbeaten in seven races including all three legs of Hong Kong’s Triple Crown, the HK Classic Mile, the HK Classic Cup and the HK Derby.

In the first of those handicaps he was receiving 18 lb from the top weight (Southern Legend, whom he can easily beat at level weights) although he actually only received 17 lb as he had such a low weight that Vincent Ho had to put up a pound overweight. Predictably punters realised the handicapper’s blunder beforehand on both occasions and each time he started at odds-on before winning easily.

However, being easily the best horse at the weights in every race does not guarantee an extended winning sequence. No horse is good enough that he will always be able to win every time. Frankel and Black Caviar did, but even those two came close to defeat once or twice. Frankel was nearly beaten by the significantly inferior Zoffany in the St James’s Palace Stakes when connections had the tactics badly wrong, and he made heavy weather of getting home in front in his final start when he was clearly ‘over the top’ for the year.

Black Caviar too nearly tasted defeat at Ascot, when it was clear that she was below her best and when Luke Nolen’s overconfidence cost her crucial momentum in the final strides. They escaped on those occasions, but they wouldn’t have done so invariably had similar situations been repeatedly met. Winx, although beaten a few times earlier in her career, kept winning once she started her famous run of success in the Sunshine Coast Guineas in May 2015.

However, she too came close to defeat on a few occasions, most notably when only catching her inferior stablemate Foxplay in the final stride of the Bob Ingham Warwick Stakes at Randwick in August 2017. However good the jockey, any horse can be beaten in any race if things go wrong; and however good the trainer, it is hard to guarantee that any horse can be at his or her very best every time he or she runs.

The upshot is that, as Bull Hancock famously observed after Nijinsky, whom he had already bought as a stallion to stand at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, was unexpectedly beaten in the 1970 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, “we all know that if you run them often enough, they’ll get beaten eventually”. All of which goes to show that Golden Sixty’s current 15 race winning streak (which is very likely, but not certain, to be extended in next month’s Hong Kong Mile) is something to savour.

While it is easier said than done putting together a notable winning streak even if one has the best horse in training, it is obviously even harder (considerably so) to do so if one doesn’t. This means that the achievement of English National Hunt trainer Donald McCain in placing 7yo steeplechaser Minella Trump to win his last seven races deserves particular praise.

Nowadays the aim of the racing programme is to produce competitive racing at every level, in order that pretty much every race will be an open betting contest. This is achieved by having a system, created both by the conditions of the races and by the official handicap ratings list which is reassessed every week, in which each victory makes it harder for a horse to win in the future, on the basis that he either has to contest a better race next time or run in a similar race but with a higher weight.

What Donald McCain has done with Minella Trump (who is currently rated 36 lb below Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up A Plus Tard, winner of the feature race on Saturday, a Grade One chase at Haydock) in the last seven months is outstanding. At the start of May, Minella Trump had raced seven times over hurdles, winning on the first two occasions (in the final weeks of 2019) and then suffering five defeats.

He had also contested two steeplechases, finishing third of six and fifth of nine. Since then, starting on 13 May, he has won a handicap hurdle at Perth; three novice handicap chases at Perth; a novice handicap chase at Sedgefield; a novice handicap chase at Sandown; and, last Friday, a novice chase at Catterick.

The skill which McCain has shown in picking suitable races is illustrated by the fact that this is not a case of a horse improving dramatically: he only had an official BHA rating 13 lb higher on the day of the seventh of these victories than on the day of the first. The racing programme is designed to ensure that something like this just shouldn’t happen, but McCain’s skill allied to Minella Trump’s ability and determination has seen the very unlikely come to pass. And that, too, is something to savour.