Beauty in the eye of the beholder
Zac Purton had a good day on Sunday but he did miss the chance of his career.
A few fellow riders had ribbed him after the Jockey Club Mile win by Beauty Generation (left), when Purton's reins were cascading down the left side of the horse over the final 250m as he ran towards the outside fence. Not something that racing fans would notice, or worry much about if they did, but it's always a point of professional tidiness with jockeys that they don't have their reins flopping around in the wind.
On Sunday, though, things were extremely tidy over the final stages of Beauty Generation's crushing Longines Hong Kong Mile win, so much so that Purton took some time out to sit up and give his ride a pat down the neck even before the race was even finished (below).
The chance he missed was a very rare moment for an aeroplane, something we have seen before occasionally from riders like Olivier Doleuze, Mirco Demuro (below) or a bow to the crowd like Brenton Avdulla produced winning the Oaks in Melbourne a couple of years back. And a chance to do it in a Group One.
In truth, nobody who knows Purton would have expected that. Purton is not averse to crowing or being a show-off but usually with both feet on the ground - on horseback, his celebrations don't normally shake the gauge even to level of any number of other jockeys.
But the wins by Exultant and Beauty Generation continue Purton's rapid rise up the list of Group One winning jockeys in Hong Kong racing.
He rode in Hong Kong for more than two years before the first, Fellowship's Stewards' Cup victory, then almost another two years before his second on Ambitious Dragon in the Hong Kong Mile, but there has been a consistent flow ever since and he now sits in fifth place.
But hang on, you say, where is Gary Moore, or Tony Cruz, who dominated the scene for so long in the 80s and 90s? One of the serious difficulties in assembling any such list is the changing landscape of Hong Kong's top races over a relatively short time in the 47-odd years of professional racing. By my best count, you'd put Cruz in at 16, but in addition to having fewer of what might be described as Group Ones in his day, some of the races you might want to count were not that big a deal then and othrs which seeme dto have been highlight races then are no longer run or no longer count now. Cruz won a QE II Cup when it was a Class 1, for example. And do you count the Derby or Classic Trial (later Classic Mile), which technically no longer count now as they no longer carry Group status? A great example of the problem is the Bauhinia Sprint Trophy, which started life as Group Three in 2000m, was elevated to Group One from 2001-2005, then was demoted to a Class 1 in 2006, before being elevated again to Group Three since.
It's a minefield, and the table above takes a simple view: whatever the tag was on the day it was run is how a race is considered. So a Derby win three years ago counts as Group One win, but Rapper Dragon and Ping Hai Star do not. Agreed, it really isn't very satisfactory but that's the way it is.
The manner of Beauty Generation's win has, naturally, spawned another discussion on who is the best miler produced by Hong Kong.
While some might throw up names from the distant past, it's fair to argue that the standard for a dominant horse here 30 years ago was well below the standards of the last 20 years. And the main argument is about recent stars, so we'll limit things and exclude the likes of Fairy King Prawn or Electronic Unicorn, and leave it between Able Friend and Beauty Generation, with Ambitious Dragon and Good Ba Ba thrown in for good measure.
Fans tend to be most in love with the win they saw yesterday, the excitement of which they are still feeling, or those burned into memory from 30 years ago when the world was fresher and everything was better (or so it seems).
So Beauty Generation has plenty of support but I think he ranks third of the two and it isn't even close.
The benchmark for the ratings I've developed for use in comparing horses is a 100 rating - it's a very compressed kind of scale and these numbers do not line up with other ratings you might see from the handicappers or elsewhere. To simplify the underlying methodology into a few words: it's time and weight and sectionals all married up in the same performance.
There is therefore some bias to horses running on and finishing their race off strongly to the line - finishers often have to compete right to the final stages to get the result, while a horse like Beauty Generation, winning from the front and coasting late, will have his figure affected by that.
Only the really elite horses breach the 100 mark and Beauty Generation has yet to do it. He returned 99 first-up for the season and did it comfortably, and he was only a 96 on Sunday. The way he won both those times, and one or two others, especially doing handstands over the final stages on Sunday, says the 100 will happen when he finds something to push him to the line a bit more.
The only time he has really been bottomed it has been in an over the top scenario like the Jockey Club Mile, where his numbers collapsed in the final sectionals, dragging his figure down - and quite rightly after running at near top speed for 1200m. Nobody could fail to have been impressed that he kept going, but nobody could judge him on that either.
Ambitious Dragon registered one towering figure of 105, two more of 100 and 101 and 99 twice. Sure, he dropped the ball a few times - notably when he seemed flat for a few starts after the 105 - but when he turned up there was only going to be one winner.
Good Ba Ba also breached the 100 mark on multiple occasions, including two of his three Hong Kong Mile wins.
And then there's Able Friend, my choice for the best of them. His peak runs produced 103 - that stunning Premier Bowl win (right) which might have played a part in finishing him - another 102 when he strolled home in Hong Kong Mile in 2014 and another 101. He he also ran another two 99 figures, but what was notable each time was he never looked bottomed out in them - he looked like he could go out 10 minutes later and do it again and that's why my preference lies with him. The only time he was seen running as well as he could on the day was when foot problems were having an affect, notably the 2015 HK Mile defeat when he ambled past Maurice before the injury kicked in - in defeat he registered 96 but was going to 100 for sure until the foot gave out.
The Hong Kong miler division, with the exception of one horse, is as soft right now as I've seen it in 17 years here, so maybe Beauty Generation would need to go offshore to find one good enough to make him hit his peak figure. When he does, it will be triple figures but I guess nobody will complain if he only keeps strolling home with lesser numbers. When all's said and done, racing is an adversarial contest not a time trial - it's about beating the opposition and he is certainly doing that.