Wellington joined one of the most select clubs in Hong Kong racing's fabled speed division on a glorious FWD Champions Day at Sha Tin Sunday afternoon (April 24) when running out a dominant winner of the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize (1200m) under Alexis Badel.
Richard Gibson's powerful gelding, who captured the coveted prize with a striking turn of foot in 2021, was bidding to join Mr Vitality, Fairy King Prawn, Silent Witness, Sacred Kingdom, Dim Sum and Lucky Nine as a dual winner of Hong Kong's final Group 1 dash of the season in recent years.
Only Mr Vitality, Silent Witness and Lucky Nine had landed the prize in successive years since 1995 but Wellington emulated them with a clinical performance which left Badel beaming and Gibson hailing “equine brilliance” as Hong Kong racing took a significant step towards pre-pandemic normality with owners back at the races for the first time since January 12.
“What a wonderful day that the owners are here,” he said. “I'm so pleased they are here to share such a great horse. I'm just delighted that the Club made all the efforts to make sure that the owners were here today and the crowd that are here appreciated equine brilliance because that's what it is.
“He really is one of the top sprinters in the world. It's difficult to win these big Group 1 races back-to-back. He's done it and it's a great achievement.”
Gibson's sure touch with elite horses is firmly established thanks to the dual Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) winner Doctor Dino and Hong Kong Derby (2000m) winner Akeed Mofeed, while Gold-Fun was a fixture in Hong Kong's top races for several seasons and came out best in an epic battle with Aerovelocity, Lucky Nine and Peniaphobia for the Chairman's Sprint Prize in 2015.
The 52-year-old Englishman saddled Gold-Fun to come within a neck of landing the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes (1200m) at Royal Ascot in 2016 but the hugely popular sprinter fell fatally at Deauville later that summer.
Wellington endured his own brush with danger when forced to sidestep fallers in the Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) won by Sky Field in December and Gibson came into today's race fearful of the fine margins at play and concerned that “tempo and track conditions” might play a significant role.
He needn't have worried. Sent off as +190 favourite after unleashing his trademark burst to land the Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup (1400m) and the Group 2 Sprint Cup (1200m) under a penalty, Wellington was ridden with characteristic confidence by Badel and settled comfortably in fifth through a strong opening sectional of 23.36s set by the freewheeling Kurpany.
Computer Patch nosed ahead briefly with 300m to run, followed by Sight Success, but Badel had both moves covered in a flash and Wellington stormed past them with ears pricked to win by a length and a quarter and the same in a winning time of 1m 08.09s.
The result carried clear echoes of the 2021 renewal, with Computer Patch and Sky Field filling the places again, while Super Wealthy, Hot King Prawn and Sight Success finished fourth, fifth and sixth.
Champion at the peak of his powers
Wellington has now won ten of his sixteen starts with a running total of over HKD$40 million in prize money.
Badel has been in the irons for seven successes having lost the ride to Zac Purton for a year in the early part of the gelding's career and the son of All Too Hard has illuminated a season in which the Frenchman has consolidated his position as sixth in the Hong Kong jockeys' table despite a series of costly suspensions.
“When you ride such a good horse it makes the life of a jockey a lot easier and all credit to the trainer and Richard's team as he's not an easy horse to train and he knows exactly what to do,” Badel said.
“He's given him a lot of patience and today we see the results. We make a good team and it's great to ride such a good horse.”
Gibson paid tribute to his stable star's groom and exercise rider for their roles in what will surely lead to a Champion Sprinter award before reflecting on the tension that goes hand in hand with getting a world-class athlete to a peak then keeping him there.
“I've been pinching myself for the last three weeks,” he added. “The horse was ready three weeks ago and I was waking up every morning and saying to myself ‘what can go wrong'?” Gibson said.
“It was all going far too smooth. I thought we had the best horse so it was a matter of getting our plans right. His groom has such a wonderful relationship with the horse and we knew if we ticked the boxes today, he'd get the job done.”
Gibson has long believed that planning a Group 1 campaign months in advance is “the best thing about the job” but is in no rush to make international plans for a gelding who is still only five and possibly open to further improvement.
“Covid changes every two weeks,” he added. “It seems too difficult. We've had such a wonderful season and we've now got plenty of time to sit down with the owners and have a chat.
“The horse has got such mental strength. It's rare for a sprinter to be so calm before a race. I think what makes him different is that he can turn on this power like a flick of a switch. Alexis ticks all the boxes and I thought he gave him a wonderfully good ride today.”