Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hong Kong's Dirt-y Dilemma? Not On Our Turf

It's no secret that outside America, horse racing is essentially turf racing -- at least, those races which matter most.

In the States, though, the weather, as well as the sheer number of race days at most tracks, plays a large role in why dirt reigns supreme. Not to mention, dirt has historically been the preferred surface for America's best runners. 

Regardless, turf racing not only exists but thrives within America's borders, as has been shown in recent years through Breeders' Cup winners Wise Dan and Tepin and G1 Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man. American-trained turf runners have even begun to make inroads in marquee events overseas -- just have a look at the most recent overseas performances by Acapulco, Undrafted and Miss Temple City. 

Turf racing is, and always will be, second best in America -- and rightfully so, really. Recent changes to the Eclipse Awards -- the renaming of Older Male to Older Dirt Male and the equivalent for the older females -- only reinforces this sentiment further. 

But as much as US racing fans at times have hoped accomplished turf horses like Wise Dan would taken on the best dirt gallopers in his prime -- he was a G1 dirt winner, after all -- imagine if a horse like him had not other options and was forced to race on dirt.

That's the case, albeit reversed, in Hong Kong. In a jurisdiction where racing is dependent on ratings, horses are only permitted to run in races in which they are eligible -- where they fit within the ratings band. For example, a horse rated 93 could run in a 100-80 Class 2, but would be ineligible for a 120-95 Class 1. Ratings are adjusted up or down based on performance, with a horse's rating moving up a minimum of five points for each win. 

In Hong Kong, dirt racing typically features lesser quality individuals, with no Group races on the erroneously named "all-weather track", so when a dirt horse reaches the upper echelons of the ratings, a decision must be made. 

Take eight-year-old veteran Lucky Nine. The son of Dubawi twice ran over the dirt in his first five local starts, resulting in a three-length win and a runner-up finish. He thrived over the surface, but after only seven local races he reached stakes company. His dirt days were done and in the six seasons since, he has only raced once on dirt and that was in Dubai. 

More recently, Rich Tapestry twice ran over the dirt at Sha Tin, both of which he won easily. By comparison, though, he has struggled on turf at the local Group level. While he has one HKG2 victory, he has never finished better than fifth in four other Group races. Unlike Lucky Nine, however, Rich Tapestry's connections have sought to return him to his preferred surface by the only means possible: travelling. To their credit, his international expeditions have met with great success -- in five overseas runs on either dirt or AW, Rich Tapestry has won twice, including the G1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, and he has only once finished off the board, when he was found to have bled. 

Looking to follow in his globetrotting footsteps is Gun Pit, a son of Dubawi who has taken the Hong Kong dirt scene by storm. Boasting a perfect seven-for-seven record over the surface, Gun Pit began this season in thrilling fashion -- breaking his own 1,650m track record when winning by two lengths, spotting second-placed Eroico 21 pounds. In doing so, his rating was boosted nine points from 112 to 121 and his Class 1 days for the near future were done. As a result, his days wowing the locals are also likely done, at least for now. Just days after his big win, he was sent to Japan to compete in this weekend's G1 Champions Cup, a race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt. Should that foray prove to be successful, potential targets such as the Dubai World Cup have been mentioned by trainer Caspar Fownes. 

On one hand, it seems somewhat cruel that a horse is punished, to some extent, for being "too good" -- by virtue of having no opportunities to run on his preferred surface locally. Putting the best dirt runners on turf isn't ideal and travelling them can be expensive, as Rich Tapestry's trainer Michael Chang learned the hard way after running his charge in California. 

The chance of dirt Group races being carded, however, appears unlikely, partially due to the notion of dirt races being second-tier. More importantly, there is a small horse population stabled locally, fluctuating somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 horses. There are rarely full fields in turf Group races, so with less interest from connections, the demand simply isn't there.

Nevertheless, imagine the best American turf horses couldn't run over the surface any longer because they were "too good". It is unfathomable. What if Wise Dan couldn't have campaigned in the United States as a result of having won too many turf races? 

So when we, as Americans, look back at some of the best turf runners this country has produced in recent years -- the English Channels and Mizdirections -- perhaps instead of wishing they were racing over a different surface, we can be grateful our stars have the ability to race on their preferred surface and wow us local fans. It's a privilege not all racing fans are granted ... just ask those in Hong Kong.

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