Setbacks, an earthquake, weight loss, a wide draw and firm ground could not stop Werther’s bid for glory in the Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen (2200m), but a Rocket could as the champion stayer fell just short of victory at Hanshin Racecourse today (Sunday, 24 June).
“We are so proud of him, he is all heart,” said an emotional John Moore, the trainer’s voice cracking, after Werther returned to the runner-up stall in front of almost 66,000 spectators.
“He’s a horse that knows where the winning post is and he showed a lot of fortitude to hit the line. I don’t like running second, never do, but from a Hong Kong point of view, we’ve shown just how good our best stayer is. To take on the best of the Japanese and to run as well as he did, it just shows – don’t take Hong Kong’s horses lightly.”
Werther was sent off at 14.9 on the Japanese tote, the 10th pick in betting in the field of 16. From gate 13, jockey Hugh Bowman snagged the Tavistock gelding back to settle in the last four down the Hanshin straight the first time, sitting quietly on the bay until the 600m point.
Bowman then brought Hong Kong’s 2015/16 Horse of the Year to the outside of the field and began to track up promisingly, making strides at every call. Cornering widest of all, he came with a withering run down the centre of the track and, entering Hanshin’s notorious rise at the 200m, he loomed up as the possible winner.
However, he could not reel in trainer Hidetaka Otonashi’s gutsy Mikki Rocket, who scraped home for a neck victory.
Noble Mars was third for trainer Hiroshi Miyamoto, three lengths behind Werther, while Dubai Turf winner Vivlos (fourth), Arima Kinen winner Satono Diamond (sixth), Kikuka Sho victor Kiseki (eighth) and LONGINES Hong Kong Vase winner Satono Crown (12th), the defending champion, were among those in behind.
It was a notable effort from Werther given that he was entering the Takarazuka Kinen with only one run under his belt in the last four months. That was in the Group 3 Lion Rock Trophy Handicap (1600m) three weeks ago, where he finished sixth to The Golden Age under top-weight.
“If he had been aimed solely for this with a preparation to suit, rather than this being something of an afterthought with only the one mile run under him, I think he would have won,” Bowman said.
“The one run at a mile up to a Japanese 2200m race is not easy and, even though these races suit his style, his condition just gave out late. Full credit must go to John and the stable for getting him to this level at this distance and for getting him to run so well.”
A pre-race scare was sent through the camp when Werther weighed in an hour before the event at 447kg or 985lb, well down from the 1046lb that stands as both his average winning weight and his first-up weight in the Lion Rock Trophy. It was also down from the 454kg (1000lb) at which he tipped the scales on Friday (22 June).
“It was a concern, but we expected him to lose some weight with the travel,” Moore said.
“Remember, in Hong Kong, we weigh them nearly two days before. The Jockey Club stopped weighing them on race day. He will never race anywhere near that weight in Hong Kong, but I would think if you weighed him just before a race, he’d normally be 1015lb to 1020lb. Still, it shows just how tough he is and I can’t thank the staff enough, they’ve done a great job with him.”
Bowman, who rode in Sydney on Wednesday and flew to Osaka specifically for the Werther ride, was proud of his mount’s effort to finish second.
“To be honest, even though we didn’t win, I couldn’t have been happier with the horse’s performance,” he said.
“I had a beautiful run in transit and he seemed to enjoy the genuine speed that he gets in Japan. I had the run I desired, he was very comfortable and I was able to move into the race behind Vivlos, which I felt was the main danger. At the top of the straight, I thought he was going to win, and I thought I had the winner covered at the 200m, but at the line, I felt the winner was going away from me. It’s disappointing, you always want to win, but he’s still run the race of his life even in defeat.”
Moore confirmed that Werther, with his season now at an end, would aim at the Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) in December, while he is eyeing off a Group 1 Dubai Turf (1800m) run next year with the six-year-old. Bowman said that he would like to ride Werther whenever possible in his upcoming campaign.
“I’d like to ride him wherever he races, he’s one of the most consistent horses I’ve ever ridden and he’s always racing against the best,” the Australian jockey said.
“I think the key to Werther is a solid tempo – it’s what brings him undone in Hong Kong, they rarely go a true speed and when the pace slackens, he struggles. If you look at his best races, they have all been when foreign horses have come to Hong Kong. His best win was in the QEII Cup and that was a high-pressure race. He got that here and hopefully he can find more races like this.”
Mikki Rocket was ridden by Ryuji Wada, who celebrated his 41st birthday yesterday (Saturday, 23 June). The jockey, best known as the regular rider of the recently-deceased T M Opera O, was scoring his first Group 1 victory since that galloper’s 2001 Tenno Sho (Spring) win.