Studious Charlton content to fly under the HKIR radar with Vase hope Aspetar
Measured, even studious, Roger Charlton has forged a career as one of Britain’s most successful trainers over the last 30 years without a hint of flamboyance, and no apparent desire to stand out in a crowd. Aspetar, his first runner in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase, is cut from similar cloth.
Five in a month’s time but with just 10 races on his record sheet, Aspetar has crept up the rankings to the point where he has a G1 win to his name and an international rating of 116 that puts him just 4lb behind last year’s Vase hero Exultant. Yet his flight path into Hong Kong at the weekend is distinctly under the radar.
Charlton, who has sent out a steady stream of major winners from his base at the historic Beckhampton Stables since his breakthrough success with Quest For Fame in the 1990 Derby, is unfazed by underdog status.
“Sometimes these big overseas races at this time of year are afterthoughts and Hong Kong happens to be the last party,” he says, “but Aspetar has had a nice break, so he could be a fresher horse than some.
“The track and going shouldn’t be a problem. Early on I thought he needed slow ground, but his win in the Grand Prix de Chantilly was on fairly quick ground, and the Preis von Europa, which he won towards the end of September, was on very quick ground. He’s very fresh and doesn’t need a lot of work, so when he gets to Hong Kong, he’ll simply tick over.”
Aspetar is owner-bred by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa Al Thani, a senior member of the Qatari ruling family, whose blue silks with white stars were predominantly seen on French and home-trained Arabian horses before gradually emerging in Europe’s top thoroughbred stables over the last six years, most notably with two wins in the French 1,000 Guineas.
A son of Charlton’s multiple G1 winner Al Kazeem, who has a limited number of sons and daughters due to fertility issues, his progression this year has been steady but deliberate.
“I took the view that French Group races might not be quite as hot as those in Britain, so after running fifth in soft ground at Longchamp, we went for the Grand Prix de Chantilly at the beginning of June, which by Group 2 standards was not the strongest race there’s ever been. Nonetheless, he won it and there was almost £67,000 to the winner.
“Then we thought it was important to run in a Group 1, so we went to the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud. Although beaten into fourth behind Coronet, he ran pretty well, allowing that he raced a little keenly.
“Baden-Baden was a possible, but the Preis von Europa at Cologne came up on the agenda at the right time, and he won that readily. Although Best Solution, a Group 1 winner, and Communique, winner of the Princess of Wales’s Stakes, were in the field, again it probably wasn’t the strongest Group 1 race that has ever been run.
“The next question was whether we should go straight to Qatar at the end of February for the HH the Amir Trophy, which is his main target early in 2020, but the possibility of Hong Kong came up, and it seemed the obvious place to go.
“He’s been consistent throughout the year, has become a hardened traveller, and was still training well. And the prize-money is particularly good.”
Charlton is no stranger to Sha Tin and came very close to landing the Hong Kong Mile when 32/1 shot Cityscape – now a successful stallion and sire of this year’s Mile hope Ka Ying Star - finished strongly to go down by a neck to Able One in 2011.
Deportivo (2003 Sprint), Bated Breath (2011 Sprint) and Captain Cat (2014 Mile) didn’t fare so well having been drawn towards the outside but Charlton adds that “I don’t think the post position will make too much difference in the Vase.
“It’s a tough journey and we have to take on board a certain amount of risk, but it’s all about having a horse – preferably a gelding - who you think will take the travel, because there are some very big pots at the end of journeys around the world, whether that’s to Dubai, Australia or in this case Hong Kong.
“Aspetar is likely to earn much more money going down that route than he is racing in the UK, especially in the first half of the year, when he would be running in prep races with a Group 1 penalty, and if you finished second or third, you’d win very little money anyway.
“Coming to Hong Kong is in some ways experimental; we may find that it’s one race too many for the year, or it’s the perfect prep race for Qatar. But we’ll give it a shot.
“If the international ratings are right, we’ve a realistic chance of being in the first four, and with nearly £1.2m to the winner and more than £400,000 to the second, we know where the prize-money is.”
Charlton invests in youth as Watson bids to shine at HKIR
Aspetar’s rider Jason Watson will be the youngest jockey in action in this year’s LONGINES HKIR at just 19. The teenager has made rapid progress since his first ride in February 2017, crowned Britain’s champion apprentice of 2018, ending that year with his first Group 1 success on God Given in Italy and earning the job as stable jockey to Roger Charlton in 2019. The year started with a serious neck injury sustained in a fall but Watson has bounced back to ride more than 90 winners, with Aspetar’s German victory followed by a first British success at elite level aboard Charlton’s Quadrilateral in the Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket.
“Riding in a big international festival such as this for the first time is always a big ask, but Jason has to start somewhere, and the more practice he gets the better. He hasn’t let me down yet, and I’m not expecting that to happen to here.
We could have looked at the Vase and thought who else was going to be available. Some of the top names are in Japan, others are somewhere else or taking the winter off, and you could end up with someone who has never ridden the horse before, so it’s not a straightforward choice.
I’d rather have a jockey who knows the horse, even if he has never ridden in Hong Kong before, because I can promise you that Jason will have watched every single video available. He’s very deep into analysis. When he thinks he’s made a mistake, for instance, he’ll watch the video a hundred times.
He’s riding in the international jockeys’ challenge in Mauritius at the weekend and then goes straight to Hong Kong. He’ll ride Aspetar on the track a few times and then the rest is up to him.
I’ve been very satisfied with his first year as stable jockey. He’d ridden in France but not ridden a winner when he won twice there for us on Headman; he hadn’t ridden in Ireland but dished it up to them on Headman in the Irish Champion Stakes, and he won the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile for us on Quadrilateral.
You have to remember he’s 19, has only been riding in races for about two and a half years, and when he became champion apprentice in 2018, he started the year with just two winners to his name.
He positions himself very well in a race and gives very good feedback. He’s mature and doesn’t act or behave like a juvenile. No jockey’s perfect and it’s my job to give him confidence, put him on nice horses and let him get on with it.”
Howard Wright completed 50 years in racing journalism in June 2014, having started at Timeform and later the Daily Telegraph in London before becoming a founder member of staff at the Racing Post in 1986. He retired as the Post’s industry editor in July 2012, but continues to write for the paper, as well as other international media, including Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder and Thoroughbred Racing Commentary. Aside from media work, he has been a trustee of the UK’s stable-staff training centre the Northern Racing College since 1990, and vice-chairman since 2004, and was a member of Britain’s Flat Pattern Committee from 1986-2009.