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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Don't be fooled by Star's "flukey" win

Ka Ying Star's opening bid for the four-year-old series on Sunday came with plenty of favours from rivals but it should not be undersold on that basis.

The son of Cityscape raced as Urban Aspect in the UK, winning three of his four stars as an on-pace runner and looking a horse of some promise.

So the idea that he might go on to something good in Hong Kong was not misplaced but winning at his debut in Class 2 puts him into a very small group of horses.

Every horse has to start off somewhere and the Jockey Club issues more permits each season for unraced horses - PPGs and ISGs.

In Hong Kong, those horses are called "griffins" (Private Purchase Griffins and International Sale Griffins). Why they are called that is not certain. The term goes back to the 19th century, when humans newly-arrived in the young British colony were referred to as griffins, but the derivation of that tag is unclear. It doesn't seem to be connected with the legendary part lion-part eagle creatures of mythology!

Most of the time, when you see a horse winning at the first appearance in Hong Kong, it is one of that group of horses - most often horses which have shown ability in trials overseas and have been bought off that performance. It's a section of the population that features strongly in John Size's business plan as a trainer and the serious advantage that this group of horses holds is starting off a relatively low handicap rating.

With the exception of a handful of what are called Griffin races - set aside for southern hemisphere two-year-olds and northen hemisphere three-year-olds in the second half of the season - new PPGs from the southern hemisphere kick off with a 52 rating, just past the middle of Class 4 and, if successful on debut by a big margin, might go to 62 or as much as 65 for the win. If the margin of victory is just standard, that horse might have his rating lifted by only 6 or 7 points. It might take this horse 3 wins to get past the 70 handicap mark. The northerm hemisphere-bred griffin kicks off on a 57 mark - not quite as good but still an edge if they have some ability.

Compare that with a horse who has won a similar race to a Class 4 in a maiden event overseas. The Jockey Club's policy currently, for better or worse, is that previously-raced PPs (or Private Purchase horses) must have a rating of 70 or more to qualify for importation.

So we could, and often do, have the PP with after one start for one win running off a 70 rating, while the equivalent PPG is rated much lower for the same formline and might win two or three races before the two horses are on level terms in the handicaps.

Many of these PPGs go on to the top level, especially under Size, who has won two Derbys with horses that arrived as PPGs, Luger and Fay Fay. On the current G1 list, you have PPGs like Mr Stunning, Ivictory, Hot King Prawn, D B Pin, Beat The Clock...the list goes on and on. What an avantage these types of horses enjoy starting off at a 52 rating in their early starts as they learn the game.

That is the power of the PPG and it shows in their performances on debut (left). Even at their racetrack debut, a fair percentage - about 16 a season - are able to win. They lack experience, of course, but if they have talent their advantage in the handicaps allows for quite a successful start to a career before they reach the point of being properly tested. In one aspect, that is necessary, since many of the PPGs are three-year-olds being thrown into racing more mature, experienced open age horses right from the get go - there are very, very few races for only three-year-olds in Hong Kong - but many of the PPGs are also four-year-olds starting off the same mark.

Contrast that experience with the PPs.

Most of them start their Hong Kong careers in Class 3 and they average about five or six winners a season on debut. If we went back further in time, to the days before the Hong Kong handicappers started slashing the starting marks of northern hemisphere gallopers arriving with inflated ratings from Europe and Great Britain, it was more like three debut wins a season.

It's a difficult ask for a coupleof reasons, not the least of which is that they are often purchased off a good win, which naturally leads to a rise in rating. Running three weeks later at the same track, the horse would, theoretically, be required to lift his performance to perform at the new rating. Now, put a break of three to 12 months in there instead of three weeks, and add a move to a completely different environment, with a different training and feeding regime, and you have a horse still needing to perform at least to his last start level to win on debut in Hong Kong. That's no easy task at all.

And that's in Class 3. As you see in the table, the prospects of a debut win in Class 2 are much lower. So Ka Ying Star joined Eagle Way, Werther, Divine Calling, Gold Mount, Mirage and Military Secret in the past six years as successful Class 2 debutants. Military Secret had problems and was retired after one more start, while Mirage was a nightmare to load into the barriers and was retired back to Australia after being scratched at the gates before his scheduled second start, for fear he might kill somebody. Divine Calling played a role in the four-year-old series - mostly as a disappointing favourite - and did not win again in Hong Kong before his own return to Australia, but the other three, to greater or lesser extents, made a home in top level racing.

Military Attack (above) was another success at his Class 2 debut - he was the last winner Darren Beadman ever rode - winning in Class 2 at Happy Valley before going on to win multiple G1s and a horse of the year award.

So, Ka Ying Star was handed the final race at Sha Tin on Sunday in terms of the race tempo, his lighter weight and the way it was run, and many will question that, considering he went out unwanted at 28-1. But don't let any of that lead you to the idea that it was a fluke - winning in Class 2 on debut is no simple task, however it happens, and it often points to a serious career in prospect.

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