Connections, guests and media gathered in hopeful anticipation at the Sha Tin Racecourse parade ring for this week's LONGINES Hong Kong International Races barrier draw ceremony and the event, never short of drama, produced the usual delight, resignation and stoic disappointment.
The biggest reaction was reserved for local hero Lucky Nine, seeking a second successive win in the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint, who seems more often than not to pull a disadvantageous draw on the big days. An aching groan permeated the arena and trainer Fownes was once again left ruing ill-luck as owner Dr Chang Fuk To drew the widest berth of all, the dreaded gate 12.
"It's incredible, every time I seem to cop it, but it's just one of those things and we just have to see how good this horse is now. I can't have him any better - he's the best he's ever been!" said the trainer.
John Size on the other hand was more than satisfied after his stable star Glorious Days was drawn in gate three in the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile as he seeks to confirm recent G2 Jockey Club Mile superiority over Hong Kong's two-time Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon, drawn in gate 11.
"I'm happy with that, it gives us options and we'll see how the tempo of the race develops," said Size, adding a cautionary note that, "on his day, if Ambitious Dragon puts in a big performance, he's unbeatable."
The latter's trainer, Tony Millard, was unfazed by his horse's barrier. "Number 11 doesn't matter - he's won from a wide gate here before," he said.
Cirrus des Aigles heads to the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup as the world's highest-rated horse in training. Contesting the LONGINIES HKIR for the fourth time and a perhaps unfortunate fifth in this race last year from gate two, he will jump from gate five on Sunday.
"Five is definitely a good draw," said the six-year-old's trainer, Corine Barande-Barbe. "It will prevent him being boxed in or having to go wide, and now it will be up to Olivier (Peslier) and the horse."
California Memory landed the spoils in the 2000m contest in 2011 and connections were beaming after the gallant grey drew identically to last year in gate one.
"It's a good sign that we've got the same gate as last year!" said trainer Tony Cruz.
Meanwhile Her Majesty the Queen of England's representative, Carlton House, will jump alongside.
"I really like the draw in two for Carlton House - he can sit handy along the fence with some cover," said trainer Sir Michael Stoute.
And in the LONGINES Hong Kong Vase, Mikel Delzangles was delighted with his prospects after last year's winner Dunaden drew a similar berth to 12 months ago.
"No complaints," he stated. "We were lucky last year to draw three, and this year we have got gate two."
Hong Kong trainer John Moore, with no fewer than 11 International runners, not surprisingly came up with a mixed bag at the draw but was generally bullish about his prospects.
"On the whole I'd say we have a better team lining up on Sunday than we did last year," said Moore who won the 2011 Hong Kong Mile with Able One. "We've had some mixed results with the numbers this morning [Thursday] but, on balance, I'd say we haven't done too badly."
Moore said that he was confident Xtension would run well, from barrier four, in the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile. "He'll be right there early. James (McDonald) had him on speed when he won the Champions Mile and I'm sure he'll be looking to do something similar here. I'm happy with him."
Moore added that he would be content to see Packing OK lead in the Mile and "run them along" from gate nine while Packing Whiz would go back, in any case, and was not disadvantaged by drawing 10.
Further selected barrier draw quotes
LONGINES Hong Kong Cup
John Moore, trainer (IRIAN, ZAIDAN, DAN EXCEL & MILITARY ATTACK): "I'm not concerned about eight for Irian but the 12 draw for Zaidan is not good. He might be exposed, facing the breeze from out there but then again we have the wonder boy James (McDonald) on board and he might weave some magic. Dan Excel will go forward from nine and possibly take it up. Military Attack's drawn 13 but he'll go back."
LONGINES Hong Kong Mile
Tom Hogan, trainer (GORDON LORD BYRON): "Absolutely delighted with that draw (gate six). It's up to William (Buick) now."
Francois Doumen, trainer (SIYOUMA): "People here keep on telling me eight is a lucky number, so I've got to be happy with it."
Yoshito Yahagi, trainer (GRAND PRIX BOSS): "I believe that the draw in gate one which he got was the best one for us. My horse will settle in the midfield position."
Koji Yamamoto, assistant trainer (SADAMU PATEK): "The inside track has been protected very well, so our horse should travel well on the rail. I am very hopeful."
LONGINES Hong Kong Vase
Masanori Watanabe, assistant trainer (JAGUAR MAIL): "The track on the inside is protected and will be beautiful, so the number four gate is ideal for him. The wide positions were drawn first by other horses, so I thought I was lucky."
Ed Dunlop, trainer (RED CADEAUX): "That's OK, I wouldn't have minded drawing a little lower, but I'll settle for eight."
James Fanshawe, trainer (DANDINO): "Nine is what we've got and we'll take that."
William Haggas, trainer (DANCING RAIN): "I'm not sure how important the draw is over this trip, but five looks like a good draw."
Carlos Laffon-Parias, trainer (CHINCHON): "The horse has to come from behind, so I don't think gate 12 will matter too much - I don't think it's important at a mile and a half like it is at a mile and a quarter here."
LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint
Akiko Suzuki, owner (CURREN CHAN): "Number eight is great. I like numbers one and eight, so I drew first in the field and took my favorite "8", which was lucky, and the strong Hong Kong horses did not get the best draws, which may bring some fortune to us."
Yasunari Iwata, jockey (LORD KANALOA): "The inside draw (six) is very good, but my horse will compete well whatever the draw is. He is in a perfect condition and has lots of scope to be a top sprinter."
John O'Shea, trainer (SEA SIREN): "I'm very happy, gate seven is ideal. I didn't really want to draw one or two and I didn't want 12. I can see the speed coming across and from one or two you've got to be punched up to hold your spot all the time, so from seven we can just come across and it gives us a few options. We're going to be 'on the bunny', so from seven we can be there."
John Moore, trainer (ADMIRATION, CAPTAIN SWEET & LEADING CITY): "We'll he happy to lead in the Sprint with Leading City from gate four. Captain Sweet can box seat from two while Time After Time will probably be three back the fence, from three, and looks a live chance. Admiration's drawn out in nine but he'll be better than midfield. You've got to put him into the race and get him running. The favourite (Lucky Nine) might have his work cut from the outside draw."
Dragon aims at Glorious redress in LONGINES Hong Kong Mile
Ambitious Dragon is Hong Kong's two-time and reigning Horse of the Year, a quintuple G1/HKG1 winner equipped with a burst of acceleration that can leave top-class rivals toiling in his slipstream. On Sunday he will attempt once again to transcend his local hero status and storm the world stage by defeating a field of crack international contenders in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
With 10 Sha Tin wins under his belt, the now six-year-old has home advantage against the arrayed overseas raiders; opponents that include the likes of the Francois Doumen-trained Siyouma, seeking an international G1 hat-trick, and the crack Japanese duo, Grand Prix Boss and Sadamu Patek.
But the biggest obstacle to Ambitious Dragon clinching a second international G1 victory to complement his G1 QEII Cup (2000m) success, achieved back in May 2011, could well be the horse that has rapidly emerged as his number one local rival, the John Size-trained Glorious Days.
Size has heaped praise upon "The Dragon", who slammed his horse, when conceding 4lbs, with a scintillating win in the HKG2 Sha Tin Trophy over the course and distance in October, saying: "On his day, if Ambitious Dragon puts in a big performance, he's unbeatable, so we just have to ride our luck and hope that we're good enough."
Ambitious Dragon's trainer, Tony Millard, has guided the Pins gelding from an initial Hong Kong rating of 52 up through the ranks to sit firmly at the champions' peak, and this morning the South African offered the counter view that Glorious Days is the horse to fear.
"Everyone has to worry about Glorious Days," he averred, citing the Size horse's draw in gate three, allied to the fact that the Hussonet five-year-old defeated Ambitious Dragon at their most recent meeting in the G2 Jockey Club Mile on 18 November.
"It was a little bit of a flat run from Ambitious Dragon last time but we must remember he gave Glorious Days 5lbs," said Millard. "That's not taking anything away from Glorious Days, he was impressive, but it's a factor to consider.
"Ambitious Dragon has done very well since and I'm happy with him. I think Glorious Days will be very difficult to beat - he has everything going for him from that draw and he's a young horse on the up."
Millard's charge, on the face of it, has a tougher task than his rival from gate 11; but that ignores the fact that five of the Hong Kong champion's course wins have come when drawn in double digits, with three of those wins at 1400m or a mile.
"I'm not worried about the draw," said the trainer. "He's won from wide gates before and I'd rather he be out there than on the inside where there's the risk of him getting trapped in."
Rewind 12 months and Ambitious Dragon was a strong favourite to land the G1 Hong Kong Cup over 2000m. Defeat that day and a sputtering run when under the weather in the G1 Dubai Duty Free at Meydan in March, leave Hong Kong's star turn with something to prove in the international arena, despite his brilliant domestic performances.
On Sunday, shortly after 3.50pm Hong Kong time, Ambitious Dragon will attempt to see off his 11 opponents, banish those past disappointments and ensure his reputation as a champion of global standing.
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