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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Bright look ahead for rising HK stars

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

As the southern hemisphere racing year ticks over next week on August 1, we need sunglasses with such a bright outlook for Hong Kong's up and comers.

While the Derby 4yos of '22 looked mainly just handy, the types for lesser Group races of the future, the first two home on Derby Day, Romantic Warrior and California Spangle, had a distinct look of "things to come" about them.

No horse in HK history has achieved what Romantic Warrior did - from unraced to Classic Mile-Derby-QEII Cup winner in the confined space of late October to late April. At this time last year, he had just been sold at the Jockey Club's sale with nothing more than a breeze-up to recommend him.

California Spangle had more advance advertising than his rival but, despite that edge in experience, had more to learn in race craft and still does - if he learns to use himself more efficiently he will be our next big miler.

But this article isn't about them. It's about the horses a year behind - those that will aspire to higher things in 2022-23, and this group looks stronger than it has been for a while, led by one of the top-rated 3yos we've seen in the last decade - Cordyceps Six.

His trainer Richard Gibson even toyed with the idea of a tilt at the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, until he discovered that geldings weren't eligible, but Cordyceps Six graduated locally to being a Group winner in the Sha Tin Vase instead. This late season G3 with a strong honour list is rarely won by 3yos, but was the stepping stone into stakes company for Silent Witness back in the day and by the boom sprinter of last season, Courier Wonder.

But Courier Wonder's ratings before or since had never been in the same league as Cordyceps Six, the head of a very good group of three-year-olds last season, who will be turning four in the weeks and months leading us into 2023.

We've used a cut-off rating of over 90 here, as many smart gallopers can reach 90 on our scale without ever setting the world on fire.

Beyond 90 is a solid Class 1/2 talent, beyond 95 is blue chip Group quality and 100...well, there are very few of those and they are take-it-to-the-bank, gilt-edged G1 horses if they remain sound.

As young horses capable of getting stronger and better, the horses on this list can go higher, injury or illness might see them not repeat these figures, and then there are those who might simply stay around that low 90s level and have shown their best.

But they have all displayed sufficient talent to say are not done with and Cordyceps Six appears on the list for six separate performances from his nine runs in 2021-22.

Even if that's as good as he gets, it is good enough to say he can be HK's champion sprinter this coming season.

Gibson also trains the incumbent HK sprinting champion, Wellington, but his figures coming through the ranks at three were not in the same ball park. In saying that, he had only five

races before turning four, while Cordyceps Six has already had 12 starts, and Wellington has managed to raise himself past 95 as a 4 and 5yo, peaking with a 99 rating at five. So he is the legitimate boss of a tidy but not exceptional group of mature sprinters chasing him.

When Wellington has not won, the others have taken turns at being first. When all has fallen into place for Wellington, he has beaten them.

Where do these numbers sit with recent years? Well, last season's group was not making the same sorts of promises if we used the same cut-off.

Only nine performances on the list and headed by Caspar Fownes-trained 94-rater Killer Bee, who returned from his summer break with a serious wind infirmity, ran once and was retired, leaving a small bunch who all needed to step up if they were to become stars. At that stage, California Spangle was sitting just outside the rope with rating of 90, the day that he and then 2yo Cordyceps Six fought it out down the straight in one of the often-maligned Griffin races.

So it was a group of young horses ripe for a newcomer to pick them off as Romantic Warrior did in the classic events, while the sprinters fell short of the horses from the previous crop and that was probably not a surprise either.

The previous season's crop of youngsters had a much stronger profile as they became the 4yos of 2021: more names on the list, multiple listings for a number of them and a higher peak from the potential star of the bunch, Aethero, whose health, sadly, didn't hold up.

So next season's young crop gives every promise of being even superior to the horses from two years ago, well represented this campaign as 5yos by G1 winners Sky Field, Stronger and Wellington. And it holds up well against some historical benchmarks too.

For this table, we go back to 2012 but have cut them off at 3yos, who would turn four in the following season, able to rate 96 or better.

Many stars amongst them, a few who couldn't reproduce these ratings as older horses when their health failed them and even Thewizardofoz, who simply didn't turn up as an older horse, more often than we care to remember.

As you see, Cordyceps Six and the Italian surprise packet of this season, Tony Cruz-trained Campione, merit mentions in the same company as past G1 winners. Testimony to their displayed talent is that Mr Stunning, a recent multiple G1 winner we always thought would get to that standing, had posted a 95 peak as a 3yo and so is just outside this group.

On the wider 4yo picture, well that's in the lap of the gods, to some extent. It's about 50/50 at this stage whether the 2023 Derby champion has even been seen in Hong Kong or is part of the migration to Sha Tin that is already taking place with classic hopefuls purchased around the world in the summer and early autumn.

But the horses that we have seen perform might just be the strongest group for some years and maybe Richard Gibson will have his top hat out again in 2023.

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