Freshness the key factor as Sixty seeks one more knockout blow

Graham Cunningham

04/12/2023 16:00

Golden Sixty in full flight.
Golden Sixty in full flight.

Has the ageing champ still got what it takes?

It’s a question that has dominated the build-up to hundreds of great sporting events down the years and one that hangs in the air again as the most decorated horse in Hong Kong racing history bids to win a third LONGINES Hong Kong Mile at Sha Tin this weekend.

The idea that elite showdowns revolve around one issue is seductive but the latest chapter in Golden Sixty’s epic story contains multiple levels of complexity.

Let’s start with the inescapable fact that Francis Lui’s gelding turned eight in the summer.

That number alone will ring the alarm for some doubters, who will point to fellow Hong Kong superstar Good Ba Ba being unable to rise to the challenge when seeking a fourth consecutive Hong Kong Mile aged eight in 2010.

Age takes a toll on all of us at some point – and eight is generally a little past the tipping point for most good horses - but HKIR history is peppered with a small, select handful of veteran winners.

British warrior Collier Hill and the hugely popular Aerovelocity were eight when they scrambled home in the 2006 Hong Kong Vase and the 2016 Hong Kong Sprint, while nine-year-old Able One turned back the clock at 65-1 when holding Cityscape and Xtension in a thrilling finish to the 2011 Mile.

The fire that propelled Good Ba Ba to three previous Mile wins had already gone out by the time he sought his fourth Mile success but, thus far, Golden Sixty seems to be ageing more gracefully on every measurable level.

Aches and pains? Every athlete has them and yet, more than five years on from his first canter round the Sha Tin Trotting Ring, the ‘Veterinary Records’ section of his HKJC profile contains not a single reference to any issue or ailment.

How about recent trackwork and barrier trial evidence? Vincent Ho clearly hasn’t seen anything to concern him and draws on his love for Formula 1 by saying: “He is amazing. He’s still very light on his legs and when I ask him to pick up there is no turbo lag.”

And what of the fact that California Spangle proved a neck too good in last year’s Mile? That tactical affair showed even the best can falter under adverse circumstances but Golden Sixty reversed the form twice subsequently to end the season 4-1 ahead in duels between the pair.

Patient plan based on split decision

Douglas Whyte steers Glorious Days to an impressive victory in the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
Douglas Whyte steers Glorious Days to an impressive victory in the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.

But, for all that debates about age, health and tactics are important, the most notable question surrounding Golden Sixty’s fourth HKIR appearance relates to the fact that he hasn’t raced since his emphatic third FWD Champions Mile success in April.

The path to victory in the Hong Kong Mile is well trodden and nearly always involves a November stop-off in the Jockey Club Mile three weeks before HKIR day.

Golden Sixty has taken that path successfully by winning the G2 prize in each of the past three years but this time he will head back into the championship arena after a 224-day absence.

It’s a bold move but not without precedent as John Size produced Glorious Days in perfect condition to land the 2013 Mile on his first run of the season.

Winning rider Douglas Whyte recalls how “it was a big gamble going in without a run” but the meticulous Size sensed that being fit and fresh after a lengthy summer break provided Glorious Days with best chance to maximise the impact of his “explosive turn of foot.”

The six-year-old duly uncoiled a punishing 22.27s closing split to run down hot favourite Gold-Fun and, although Lui and Ho are taking a calculated gamble in trying to emulate what Size and Whyte did, the evidence of the clock provides a highly persuasive window into their thinking.

Ageless Golden Boy or vulnerable Golden Oldie?

Francis Lui and Vincent Ho celebrates the victory of the 2021 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
Francis Lui and Vincent Ho celebrates the victory of the 2021 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.

An ability to surge on demand as others begin to feel the pinch is what has set Golden Sixty apart throughout his stellar career and a trawl through the sectional timing section of his form profile makes for astonishing reading.

Only the best of the best possess the ability to dip below 22.5s for the final 400m of a race on a regular basis but Golden Sixty did so no fewer than eighteen times in winning nineteen of his first twenty starts between March 2019 and December 2021.

Those blistering closers have been less common of late - probably because Vincent used two shock defeats in early 2022 as a spur to riding his partner closer to the pace – but it would be dangerous to assume that the ability to settle all arguments with a knockout blow has faded.

In short, Lui is taking a leaf from Size’s Glorious Days playbook.

The record reflects that Golden Sixty came back from his summer holidays with a rapid 21.51 closer to land the Jockey Club Mile in 2021 and he was even sharper after another lengthy absence in 2022, zipping home in 21.32s to pounce on California Spangle close home.

Maybe that data has played a significant part in the decision to head for a fourth HKIR date without a prep race. Or maybe connections have simply used the innate horseman’s instinct that has served them so well as their guiding star.

Either way, Francis and Vincent will go about putting the final polish on their horse of a lifetime  in their usual precise style and, silently or otherwise, will echo the thoughts of racing fans all over the world on Sunday in saying “one more time, champ.”

They know the clock is ticking and that Golden Sixty’s glittering record – which features 25 wins, nine G1 victories, an unprecedented three Horse of the Year titles and almost HK$150m in prize money – will count for little once the gates crash open.

International raiders from Japan, France, Ireland and Singapore are in town to take him on but, with due respect to all concerned, this year’s Mile boils down to one tantalising question.

At the age of eight, has the old champ still got what it takes?

All will be revealed in the Sha Tin straight this Sunday when Vincent asks his faithful friend to go through the gears. Perhaps that will be the moment when the horse who has carried Hong Kong racing through the pandemic and beyond finally shows signs of turbo lag.

But the team behind Golden Sixty have primed him to perfection time and again. And if their Golden oldie has one more combustible closer in his locker, then this year’s LONGINES Hong Kong Mile could be another timeless classic.

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.

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