Gibson plays the waiting game after sprint king Wellington misses his cue

Graham Cunningham

23/11/2022 17:30

Richard Gibson with Wellington.
Richard Gibson with Wellington.

The problem with dress rehearsals is that even the biggest stars can occasionally fluff their lines.

True, Hong Kong’s leading man Golden Sixty was word perfect in warming up for his third G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile (1600m) at Sha Tin recently and Romantic Warrior followed his script to the letter with a powerful audition for the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m).

But Wellington came back lame after rushing the stage like an eager extra in the G2 BOCHK Private Banking Jockey Club Sprint (1200m) and trainer Richard Gibson is now forced to “let nature take its course” in the hope his stable star can contest the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) on 11 December.

Gibson has tasted all the highs and lows of Hong Kong racing since he swapped France for Sha Tin in 2011 and his instant and typically measured reaction to Wellington’s defeat as 1.9 favourite on 20 November was to say his muscular six-year-old “had an off day and not a smooth run.”

A subsequent vet’s report revealed an additional reason for Wellington’s uncharacteristic retreat into sixth behind the up-and-coming Lucky Sweynesse but it’s possible there are other factors worth considering with the biggest sprint of the year in mind.

Viewed from one angle, there are close similarities between Wellington’s November defeat and his commanding October success under top weight in the G2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m).

Wellington wins the G2 Premier Bowl in style.

Wellington drew gate seven on each occasion under Alexis Badel and ran his first two 400m sectionals in around 23.7s and 21.8s in both races.

But there is merit in the maxim that it’s not how fast you run but how you run fast – and the six-year-old’s racing manners in the two races were somewhat different.

Wellington cruised through the first 800m of the Premier Bowl in complete harmony with Badel, channelling his aggression evenly on the inside rail as he stalked Lucky Sweynesse before pouncing to record a career high HKJC rating of 128 with promise of more to come.

But it was a notably more anxious and impetuous Wellington who fizzed out of the gates like an absolute rocket in the BOCHK Private Banking Jockey Club Sprint and, after pulling for his head round the sweeping home turn, he failed to produce his trademark winning burst as the more patiently ridden Lucky Sweynesse and Zac Purton forged ahead.

Very few horses get through their career without the occasional physical setback and Wellington bounced back from lameness in his right hind leg in October 2021 to dominate Hong Kong’s sprint division with impressive wins in three major contests including a second successive win in the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m) on FWD Champions Day in April.

The window for recovery isn’t as wide as connections would like after a recurrence of the same issue but Gibson and his devoted team can take heart from the fact defeat in Sunday’s lead-up race is no barrier to success in the Hong Kong Sprint.

In fact, the last decade shows that those who excel on the third Sunday in November seldom find it easy to peak again on the second Sunday in December.

Mr Stunning is the exception having captured the Jockey Club Sprint and Hong Kong Sprint in 2017 but nine of the last ten trial winners came up short under G1 scrutiny, including heavily-backed stars like Lucky Nine, Peniaphobia, Aethero, Hot King Prawn (twice) and the Gibson ace Gold-Fun.

By contrast, those who use the Jockey Club Sprint as a springboard have a striking record once the world’s richest turf sprint comes around.

Peniaphobia reversed November form with Gold-Fun in 2015 once the HKIR flag was flying, while Aerovelocity (2014 and 2016), Mr Stunning (2018), Beat The Clock (2019) and Sky Field (2021) were others who timed their G1 entrance to perfection after being beaten on trials day.

Gibson celebrating Doctor Dino after winning the Hong Kong Vase.
Gibson celebrating Doctor Dino after winning the Hong Kong Vase.

Such historic form reversals tell the tale of an often-volatile sprint division in which fine margins tend to be the norm even before the key ingredients of barrier draw, race tempo and luck in running come into play.

But, buoyed by a string of major scores including successive renewals of the Hong Kong Vase with French globetrotter Doctor Dino, 53-year-old handler Gibson has long believed “the best thing about this job is the Group 1s.”

Preparing elite athletes to “get it right on the day” is what drives this Englishman abroad.

A new rider will be required on December 11th after Badel sustained shoulder and ankle injuries in a fall last weekend.

Wellington remains the highest rated sprinter on the Hong Kong beat. And, if nature takes its course in the desired way, then maybe he can add his name to the long list of stars who have followed a low-key rehearsal with a perfect performance once the LONGINES HKIR lights are shining.

Graham Cunningham

Graham Cunningham chose a career in racing ahead of the law thirty years ago and has never regretted it for a moment.

Nine years with the world-renowned Timeform organization paved the way for a lengthy spell as a reporter and columnist in various newspapers, starting with the Sporting Life and followed by the Racing Post and the London Evening Standard.

Graham also spent a more than a decade on television in the UK as a lead analyst for Racing UK and Channel 4 but moved to Hong Kong early in 2017 and was once employed as Senior Racing Media Content Specialist for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Featured Articles