Sha Tin, Turf, 1600m
4 May 2014

Variety Club shattered the air of invincibility surrounding Hong Kong horses in the Group 1 Champions Mile with a stunning victory that emphatically ended the local dominance. The South African champion sluiced four lengths clear at the wire to become the first overseas victor and prompted talk of a Breeders’ Cup assault.

“It’s huge for us, it’s huge for South Africa, it’s fantastic for South African breeding,” said a delighted Mike de Kock, for whom this was the Markus and Ingrid Jooste-owned five-year-old’s first official start.

A rest is now in order for the Var entire before an autumn campaign that could take in Longchamp and Santa Anita.

“He will go to Mike’s yard in Newmarket now for some time off,” said the owner’s racing manager, Derek Brugman. “Ultimately we will probably be thinking about the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp and then probably the Breeders’ Cup Mile. I’m not sure if he will have a race in England - we’ll see how he pulls up but we want to give him a break. The Prix de la Foret is a qualifying race for the Breeders’ Cup, so it makes sense to go there.”

Jockey Anton Marcus utilised Variety Club’s sharp gate speed from the 12 berth and sat second outside the front-running Helene Spirit. Able Friend, the local favourite and long regarded by trainer John Moore to be of international Group 1 calibre, had to slide back in the field from gate 14 and sat near the tail under Joao Moreira, three wide with cover.

That proved crucial, as when Variety Club cruised past the leader at the top of the stretch and delivered an emphatic burst of pace to sweep clear, Able Friend was unable to challenge. The big local hope was forced to chase Variety Club at a respectful distance as Marcus celebrated in superior isolation passing the post.

“It’s nice to have a bit of kudos heaped upon you but in fairness I have to give this horse all of the credit, he’s just an absolute professional and I’m merely a pilot,” said Marcus. “If you look at the field, the horses that he took on and the ratings, it probably was his litmus test and he’s come through it with flying colours,” the rider said of this season’s Group 2 Godolphin Mile victor who took his record to 17 wins from 23 starts.

“You saw today what he was all about, he’s taken on horses with home town advantage - I guess with the law of averages, eventually you had to get the international winner. It’s probably the crowning moment of my career, purely because Markus (Jooste) is here - usually Markus can’t manage to be on-course and he’s been such a great support to me over the past 12 years, so to pay him back is wonderful.”

De Kock, who has tried several times previously to win this Group 1 contest that had been won in each of its previous nine international editions by a Hong Kong runner, was delighted to have finally prevailed with the two-time South African Horse of the Year.

“He’s a super horse and it’s just a privilege to work with him,” said de Kock who took over the training of the horse from Joey Ramsden. “Without a really top team behind you this doesn’t happen and Trevor (Brown) has been great taking care of the horse while I’ve been back in South Africa. Everything went smoothly and that’s the most important thing, otherwise we wouldn’t be standing here.

“Basically he was in my care in Dubai anyway, so we’ve just cracked on as normal and it’s great for Markus, who is a massive player in South African racing - it’s great for him to be here, especially this week of the Asian Racing Conference.

“I’m privileged to have some really great highlights in my career. We’ve won the APQEII Cup twice and the Hong Kong Cup, so this is right up there with all of them. Musir ran third in this race and this horse is a far better miler than Musir was. We were quietly confident.”

Variety Club stopped the clock in a smart 1m 34.11s. Able Friend, although beaten, still proved his merit against the best of his local rivals in the mile division. Stablemate and 2013 victor Dan Excel was a game third, a further length and a quarter back, while Glorious Days and Gold-Fun, the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile first and second back in December, came home in the same order but in fourth and fifth.

A crowd of 22,983 at Hong Kong’s two racecourses enjoyed the international Group 1 action, despite the changeable wet weather. Turnover for the day rose 7% on 2013 to HK$1.375 billion.

“We were pretty sure before the race that this was one of the best mile races we’ve ever staged in Hong Kong and I personally think we saw that in the outcome. It was wonderful to see South Africa’s two-time champion give a world-class performance,” said Mr Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Chief Executive Officer.

“We have an ambition to keep the Champions Mile among the Top 50 Group 1 races in the world and this race stood out as a world class race - we will not rest on our laurels though.

“I’m also delighted for Mike de Kock, who is a great supporter of Hong Kong racing and a great supporter of international racing,” he continued. “It’s a great result; it’s good news for the race, for the sport and for international racing that an international horse has won the Champions Mile for the first time - and it’s a great lead-in to the Asian Racing Conference.”

The upcoming three-day Asian Racing Conference (ARC) commences on 6 May and brings together racing officials, business leaders and experts from around the globe for what is the industry’s largest and most important convocation.

Extract from Hong Kong Jockey Club

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