Ben Linfoot is our man in Hong Kong this week for the HKIR at Sha Tin on Sunday and he spoke to Ed Dunlop before he boarded the plane ahead of the trainer’s tilt at a fourth win at the meeting.
Ed Dunlop was the last UK trainer to win the Hong Kong Vase.
He was also the last European trainer to win the Hong Kong Cup. In fact, he was the last UK trainer to win any of the four prestigious contests that make up the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin, run this upcoming Sunday (December 9).
The Hong Kong Cup remains the richest race in Hong Kong at $28million HK dollars and local or Japanese horses have dominated the contest since Dunlop’s Snow Fairy stunned a quality field thanks to her rapid turn of foot eight years ago.
Dunlop doesn’t have a runner in the Hong Kong Cup this year, but he has won the Hong Kong Vase (worth just the $20million HK dollars) twice before as well and he could – even though the odds are stacked against him – win that race for a record-breaking third time at this year’s meeting.
Ouija Board was his first. A class apart at three when winning the Oaks, Irish Oaks and Filly & Mare Turf at the Breeders’ Cup, her four-year-old campaign was interrupted when she was injured at York, when Royal Ascot was on tour, but she became a bit of a globetrotter at the backend of 2005.
Beaten into second when attempting to retain her Breeders’ Cup crown, she also tasted defeat in the Japan Cup after that, but Hong Kong was a different story.
During the race, you wondered if the breaks would come. But come they did, ice-cool Kieren Fallon steering her through the field as the Cape Cross filly recorded a tremendous near three-length success.
Six years later Dunlop was back with Red Cadeaux.
Fresh off a heart-breaking nose second in the Melbourne Cup to Dunaden, Red Cadeaux finished with a flourish at Sha Tin, but he had to settle for third this time with the Flemington hero landing the spoils again.
Twelve months on and Red Cadeaux returned, via eighth-placed finishes at Flemington and Tokyo. This time he prevailed, less stylishly than Ouija Board but he had to show heart and guts to fend off regular Vase attendee Jaguar Mail.
“It was a great day for Ronnie Arculi,” remembers Dunlop of Red Cadeaux’s win.
"For him to have a winner at the Hong Kong International meeting was fantastic, one of our great days and for the horse as well, even though he’ll probably be remembered more for what he did in three Melbourne Cups."
Mr Arculi, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, owns Red Verdon as well, Dunlop’s representative in this year’s Hong Kong Vase. He’s five, he’s never been to Sha Tin before and he wouldn’t have the form of a Ouija Board, Snow Fairy or Red Cadeaux, but he does have Hong Kong racing coursing through his veins.
His dam, Porto Marmay, is a half-sister to multiple Hong Kong winner Passage West, while Porto Marmay’s dam, Nordicolini, was a half-sister to the great Hong Kong champion River Verdon, a horse that won the middle distance Hong Kong Triple Crown and the 1991 Hong Kong Cup, a horse owned and bred by Mr Arculi.
You could say that Hong Kong has been the plan for a while.
"Well, yes," says Dunlop. "We were preparing him for the Melbourne Cup which was the main aim, but unfortunately he bruised his foot, which became an abscess and actually burst out of his foot so that sort of resolved itself, annoyingly, about a couple of days after Flemington.
"After that we thought it was a good idea, particularly for Mr Arculi, that we would take him to Hong Kong.
"We hoped Australia would work out better and then we’d come back via Hong Kong anyway. We used to do it with Red Cadeaux, he obviously won the Hong Kong Vase after running well at the Melbourne Cup, so once he recovered it was something we were very keen to do."
So what of Red Verdon’s chance? He’s as big as 33/1 with some English bookies and he hasn’t won since landing a four-runner race at Lingfield back in February.
Runner-up on four occasions subsequently, including in the Hardwicke Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Glorious Stakes at Glorious Goodwood (where he was over three lengths behind Vase rival Mirage Dancer), he’s been running well without winning, acquiring an international rating of 113.
"It's the frustration of being a bridesmaid," says Dunlop, when summing up Red Verdon’s domestic campaign.
"He ran very well at Royal Ascot in the Hardwicke when he was second so his form is obviously high quality. We ran in the Caulfield Cup for his last race (finished 11th) but it was a very slowly-run race and he ran on well."
A faster pace would suit Red Verdon and that could happen. But you detect Dunlop isn’t too confident whatever the scenario.
"It depends on the pace of the race," he says. "They can go fast to the first bend and then pull it up so it depends on the fractions.
"James Doyle rides and obviously he has ridden him predominantly in Europe this year so he knows him well. We hope the jockey will be on form and that the horse remains healthy and well.
"He’ll be one of the outsiders, but he’s actually had quite a good break now since the Caulfield Cup so we’ll take him there and hope for the best.
"This is a very competitive race this year, particularly with Mr Fabre’s horse [Waldgeist] who was fourth in the Arc, but he seems fresh and well and we’ll give it a go."
Dunlop is hardly bullish, then, but how could he be with a horse that has won just twice from 18 goes on turf?
There is the possibility, though, that his best is yet to come. Hong Kong could bring out the best in him. And then there’s Dunlop’s record here in the past. Ouija Board. Snow Fairy. Red Cadeaux.
"Every horse can cause an upset," Dunlop says.
"He will be an outsider and sometimes they get strange results at Sha Tin, but it is a tough race. It’s not an easy Vase, a lot of the international horses have chosen this race rather than the Cup, but let’s just hope he gets a good draw, gets himself in the right type of position and that he does himself justice.
"We’ve been lucky there in the past, we like winning, but it’s hard. The local horses are very good, the European horses are very good, there’s a huge contingent of Japanese horses and we’re under no illusions.
"With the greatest respect to Red Verdon we’re not taking a Snow Fairy or a Ouija Board.
"So, we’ll need a bit of luck."
Ed Dunlop was the last UK trainer to win the Hong Kong Vase. He will need a bit of luck and the odds are stacked against him, but there is at least a chance he will be the next one to achieve the feat as well.