California Whip (121lb) has caused some puzzlement in his two seasons in Hong Kong, but at Sha Tin Racecourse on Saturday the pieces connected as the talented chestnut carried off the Class 1 Hong Kong Macau Trophy Handicap (1400m).
“His pet distance is 1400 metres, that’s all there is to it; I expected him to be in the first three today,” trainer Tony Cruz said, after the five-year-old had responded to Neil Callan’s busy drive to put a length and a quarter on the field.
It was California Whip’s third triumph in 22 Hong Kong starts, a two-season span that has seen him tested from 1200m up to the 1800m of last year’s Hong Kong Classic Cup.
The second of those victories, two starts back over 1200m at Happy Valley, saw the British import – third in the 2016 Britannia Handicap (1600m) at Royal Ascot – make a solid case for the argument that sprinting is his game; he had even been pegged as a dirt sprinter following his impressive breakthrough victory over 1200m of Sha Tin’s all-weather circuit in January, 2017.
“We haven’t had many opportunities to run him at this distance, that’s why he’s been running at 1200 and a mile. But the 1200 is too short and the mile just stretches him a bit,” Cruz said.
California Whip takes the Hong Kong Macau Trophy, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Today’s race was the Giant’s Causeway gelding’s first at 1400m since October. He relished the return.
California Whip broke smartly, enabling Callan to secure a handy positon, one off the fence, stalking the pace-chasers as the 3.5 favourite Calculation set the tempo. The Irish rider shifted his mount to the outside as the 12 contenders rounded the final turn, and the blinkered galloper knuckled down, striking the lead 150m out and drawing clear to win in a sharp time of 1m 21.15s.
“It was a good performance,” Callan said of the 6.3 chance. “I knew from him running over the 1200m that he’d have good gate speed, he’s always had it, but with the makeup of the field, there was probably going to be a battle up front.
“When Karis’s (Teetan) horse (Calculation) didn’t make the break with the others, we kind of pressed on and were going a good enough pace, Karis’s horses looped the field and injected more pace, it just put me in such a comfortable position.
“I followed The Golden Age into the straight and at all times I just felt very comfortable,” the rider continued. “When I went and let him go at top of the straight, I eased him off a bit and waited a bit longer and he did it well in the end.”
While Cruz believes 1400m is California Whip’s optimum, he is readying for a possible return to a shorter trip next start.
“It looks like I might have to go back to 1200 next time, the Group 3 Sha Tin Vase, but it’s a bit short, and then there’s the Group 3 (Premier Cup) over 1400 in June,” he said.
The Chris So-trained Racing Supernova (123lb) ran on to take second under Keith Yeung, a half-length ahead of another Cruz-trained contender, The Golden Age (126lb), ridden by Tommy Berry.
“I thought The Golden Age could go a bit better than that,” Cruz said.
The two Macau challengers in the interport race, Kelowna Star and Krystrump, finished 11th and 12th.
Callan ended the day with a double, having produced a canny ride aboard the Paul O’Sullivan-trained Pearl Furu to win the Class 5 over 2200m. The jockey looped the field mid-race and kicked on to win at odds of 13/1.
There was some joy for the Macau contingent in the finale, the Class 3 Coloane Handicap (1400m), as the Macau-based riders Peter Ho and Ruan Maia fought out the finish. Ho prevailed by a head on Voyage King (120lb), trained by his brother-in-law Frankie Lor – the handler is married to Ho’s sister. The 17/1 chance held the Cruz-trained California Joy (129lb).
Neil Callan celebrates, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club