“IT’S huge for us, it’s huge for South Africa, it’s fantastic for South African breeding,” exclaimed an elated Mike de Kock after SA racing’s superstar Variety Club had slammed an outstanding field in the Gr1 Champions Mile at Sha-Tin in Hong Kong on Sunday, spreading his equine fame around the globe in quick and stunning fashion.
“This was freakish, what a sensational win,” crooned the race caller as Variety Club (Anton Marcus) stretched majestically to the winning post, four lengths clear of Hong Kong’s cracking young miler Able Friend, no match for his formidable older rival.
The awesome Variety Club (left), put four lengths between himself and runner-up Able Friend (orange cap, right).
Variety Club shattered the air of invincibility surrounding Hong Kong horses in this prestigious Gr1 blockbuster, emphatically ending the local dominance. The five-year-old champion became the first overseas victor of the Champions Mile and earned the lion’s share of its mammoth $HK12-million (app R16-million) stake for his connections.
Marcus utilised Variety Club’s sharp gate speed from the 12 berth and sat second outside the front-running Helene Spirit. Able Friend had to slide back in the field from gate 14 and sat near the tail under Joao Moreira, three wide with cover.
That proved crucial, as when Variety Club cruised past the leader at the top of the stretch and delivered an emphatic burst of pace to sweep clear, Able Friend was unable to challenge. The big local hope was forced to chase Variety Club at a respectful distance as Marcus celebrated in superior isolation passing the post.
The SA-bred by VAR thrilled Hong Kong’s racing fans.
Variety Club stopped the clock in a smart 1m 34.11s. Able Friend, although beaten, still proved his merit against the best of his local rivals in the mile division. Stablemate and 2013 victor Dan Excel was a game third, a further length and a quarter back, while Glorious Days and Gold-Fun, the G1 Longines Hong Kong Mile first and second back in December, came home in the same order but in fourth and fifth.
“It’s nice to have a bit of kudos heaped upon you but in fairness I have to give this horse all of the credit, he’s just an absolute professional and I’m merely a pilot,” said Marcus.
“If you look at the field, the horses that he took on and the ratings, it probably was his litmus test and he’s come through it with flying colours,” the rider said of this season’s Gr2 Godolphin Mile victor who took his record to 17 wins from 23 starts.
“You saw today what he was all about, he’s taken on horses with home town advantage – I guess with the law of averages, eventually you had to get the international winner. It’s probably the crowning moment of my career, purely because his owner Markus (Jooste) is here – usually Markus can’t manage to be on-course and he’s been such a great support to me over the past 12 years, so to pay him back is wonderful.”
Variety Club received cheers and applause on his way to the winner’s enclosure with his happy connections on the lead rope – Breeder Anton Shepherd of Beaumont Stud (left), owner Markus Jooste and his racing manager Derek Brugman (right).
De Kock, who has tried several times previously to win this Gr1 contest that had been won in each of its previous nine international editions by a Hong Kong runner, was delighted to have finally prevailed with the two-time South African Horse of the Year.
“He’s a super horse and it’s just a privilege to work with him,” said the trainer, who took Variety Club over from his friend, Joey Ramsden. “Without a really top team behind you this doesn’t happen and Trevor (Brown) has been great taking care of the horse while I’ve been back in South Africa. Everything went smoothly and that’s the most important thing, otherwise we wouldn’t be standing here.
“Basically Variety Club was in my care in Dubai anyway, so we’ve just cracked on as normal and it’s great for Markus, who is a massive player in South African racing – it’s great for him to be here, especially this week of the Asian Racing Conference.
“I’m privileged to have some really great highlights in my career. We’ve won the APQEII Cup twice and the Hong Kong Cup, so this is right up there with all of them. Musir ran third in this race and this horse is a far better miler than Musir was. We were quietly confident.”
Derek Brugman, racing manager to the owner, revealed his camp’s plans for the rest of 2014. “He will go to Mike’s yard in Newmarket now for some time off. Ultimately we will probably be thinking about the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp and then probably the Breeders’ Cup Mile. I’m not sure if he will have a race in England – we’ll see how he pulls up but we want to give him a break. The Prix de la Foret is a qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup, so it makes sense to go there.”
A rest is now in order for the Var entire before an autumn campaign that could take in Longchamp and Santa Anita.
“We were pretty sure before the race that this was one of the best mile races we’ve ever staged in Hong Kong and I personally think we saw that in the outcome. It was wonderful to see South Africa’s two-time champion give a world-class performance,” said Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Chief Executive Officer.
“We have an ambition to keep the Champions Mile among the Top 50 Group 1 races in the world and this race stood out as a world class race – we will not rest on our laurels though.
“I’m also delighted for Mike de Kock, who is a great supporter of Hong Kong racing and a great supporter of international racing,” he continued. “It’s a great result; it’s good news for the race, for the sport and for international racing that an international horse has won the Champions Mile for the first time – and it’s a great lead-in to the Asian Racing Conference.”
Weather on the day was changeable and wet, but Sha-Tin’s massive population of racegoers remained enthusiastic and awe-inspired, enjoying the privilege of international Gr1 action royally facilitated by administrators who care deeply for the growth and survival of traditionally the greatest of all sports. Turnover at this year’s renewal of the Champions Mile meeting rose 7% on 2013 to HK$1.375 billion.
Back home, Variety Club’s legion of followers didn’t get as much as a standard two-line press release confirming or denying the live coverage of the big race by Phumelela’s dedicated racing channel, Tellytrack. At this important watershed for our industry, the Champions Mile presented a rare opportunity to reach an untapped market on our own shores via a live feed from the exclusive and strategically important platform that is Hong Kong. It would appear that not even a brass penny was thrown at the idea.
Complicated financial and contractual issues were blamed for the recent, abrupt discontinuance of live overseas racing on Tellytrack, including all the action from Hong Kong. It stands to good reason, however, that even officials at loggerheads would have been willing and able to set their differences aside in order to bring 15 minutes of highly-charged excitement and potential sporting glory to a nation sorely in need of role models.
When South African teams take to the sports fields at international level, hours of high-end coverage are dumped on viewers as an almost natural course of action, even things like Beach Volleyball, Table Tennis and of course the Paralympics. It doesn’t really matter how these teams perform, the principle is that every group of sporting nationals are worthy of maximum exposure, which is invariably and without fuss afforded to everything but racing!
Why did the participation of an acclaimed South African horse in one of the world’s pinnacle Gr1 races fail to reach the right quarters? Plans should have been made to include a mass-market media giant like DSTV’s Supersport, even if only in anticipation of arguably the greatest achievement in history by a South African horseracing outfit.
Our horses and horsemen continue to amaze the racing world, but there is a need for big-budget support to give momentum to their gargantuan efforts. The bottom-line is this: Our racing industry needs leaders who actually give a damn!
-Extracts from Champions Mile Review and all photos from HKJC media, www.hkjc.com.