The BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) may be off the agenda for Tony Cruz-trained California Whip, but jockey Neil Callan believes the four-year-old has the ability to still prove one of the best horses of his generation – albeit in shorter races. He will continue on a sprinter-miler path, beginning with Wednesday night’s (1 March) Class 2 Egret Handicap (1200m) on the Sha Tin dirt.
California Whip (127lb) was yesterday among six horses withdrawn from the 19 March Derby. This came after the colt ran an admirable fifth behind horses like Rapper Dragon, Pakistan Star, Seasons Bloom and Eagle Way in the second leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, the Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m), on 19 February.
“The last time was just dipping the toe in the water to see what sort of race he would run being stepped up in distance,” Callan said at Sha Tin trackwork on Tuesday morning (28 February). “Actually, to be fair to him, he ran a credible race. For me, I just thought I was on fresh air the last 200m, I don’t think he saw it out, but he’s come out of the race really well, Tony’s very happy with him and he’s in really good form.”
The chestnut makes a quick return to the races, 10 days after his Classic Cup effort, and also drops 600m in trip with a switch to Sha Tin’s all-weather track. But Callan points to the Giant’s Causeway colt’s last run over the course and distance – a dominant mid-January victory in Class 3 that had some speculating whether the chestnut could become a G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen (1200m) horse in time.
“You saw when he ran on the dirt last time what he did, we know he can handle it. It’s a little bit of a tricky draw but he’s got a lot of natural gate speed so hopefully he can overcome that,” Callan said, before indicating that he wasn’t worried about other potential speed influences in the race – horses like John Moore-trained Pablosky (128lb), Benno Yung’s Perpetual Treasure (119lb) and Most Beautiful (115lb) for Danny Shum. “I’m not concerned. He’s got loads of speed himself. If he has to sit back, he’ll sit back, but one thing’s for sure – if the pace is strong, it will suit him; if it’s not, it will suit him, so hopefully that’s good enough.”
One of California Whip’s chief rivals in Wednesday night’s Class 2 sprint is Paul O’Sullivan-trained Archippus (129lb). The Keeper half-brother to G1 Australian Derby (2400m) winner Tavago looked to have reached his high point in the middle of Class 3 at the start of the 2014/15 season, peaking at that time on a rating of 69. However, the 2013 Hong Kong International Sale graduate has continued to step up and now finds himself on the cusp of triple figures after strong efforts this season at Sha Tin and Happy Valley and on both surfaces.
“He fooled me!” regular rider Zac Purton said. “I thought he would get to 80 points and that would be about his ceiling, but he’s just continued to raise the bar. He’s racing with a lot of confidence at the moment, he feels like he’s a stronger horse. Paul’s done a great job with him and there’s no reason why he’s not going to go out there and be competitive again.
“There was a time there where he was incredibly frustrating because he just used to do so much wrong in his races. He couldn’t put it together. These days, though, he’s jumping really well, he’s putting himself in the right spots. He’s still got that tendency to lay out and hang going around the corners, he hasn’t quite mastered that, but he’s finishing off in great sectionals each start and if you’re doing that all the time, you’re always going to give yourself a chance.”
The Class 2 Egret Handicap (1200m) is scheduled as the last of eight races and jumps at 10:50pm.
Purton and O’Sullivan also combine earlier in the night with Grade One in the first section of the Class 4 Peacock Handicap (1200m). Grade One almost caused an upset at 65-1 on debut over Wednesday night’s course and distance, just finding John Size-trained Bond Elegance too strong by a short head. He was then heavily supported at his second start at Happy Valley, sent off a 2.4 favourite, but faded into fifth.
“His run on the dirt was good, he was caught three-wide no cover but it was a slowly run race so it may not have been a bad thing to have been in the position that he was in – he seemed to stick on quite well,” Purton said. “Last time at Happy Valley, he had a very soft lead in front and didn’t give the kick that we thought he should have. It was a disappointing effort. He’s had two runs now though, he should be fitter, he comes back to a surface where he raced well and hopefully he can reproduce his best.”
The first section of the Class 4 Peacock Handicap (1200m) is slated as the third race and will get underway at 8:15pm, with the Class 5 Swan Handicap (1800m) to begin the card at 7:15pm.