Master trainer John Size was, perhaps, disarmed by a surprisingly warm reception from the world’s media when he attended the Thursday press conference before Sunday’s LONGINES Hong Kong International Races.
It reflected his demeanour throughout the week. He spoke, at some length, which is counter to his raison d’etre and with an at ease and considered confidence about his four LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint runners and his two ostensibly lesser fancied contenders for the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
The message might be to take heed. The odds are, of course, in his favour. With four of the 12 Sprint runners he is theoretically a 3/1 chance of winning the race but in reality even shorter. After all, his most favoured runner Hot King Prawn is likely to run at around that price and then there’s the support troops.
Size’s comments generally, though not specifically, endorsed the market assessment of the Denman gelding who’s won nine of 10 starts. And the man who has won 10 of his 16 completed ‘starts’ in Hong Kong - that is, been champion trainer - was making a case for all four of his short course specialists.
“Everything's been fine with them,” Size said of the quartet, “they seem to have worked well and trained well. They look sound and healthy and I’m hoping they will run up to their best and I expect the four of them to do that.”
Hot King Prawn and Joao Moreira, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
There was a sense of conviction in that expressed expectation and the detail was to follow as to why Beat The Clock, D B Pin and Ivictory should not be entirely dismissed in the shadow of Hot King Prawn who looms as most likely to give Size his third HKIR Group 1 win.
But, first, his propitious assessment of Hot King Prawn - the horse who’s had a shadow of his own, cast by Hong Kong’s highest-rated horse and Mile favourite Beauty Generation but one from which he would well and truly emerge with a first Group 1 win to remain unbeaten for the season.
Despite the horse’s remarkable record, he may well need to have improved to off-set the five pounds disadvantage he faces against Mr Stunning who finished a half -length behind him in the lead-up G2 Jockey Club Sprint (1200m) on 18 November. You suspect that Size believes that is the case.
“The progress he has made this season has been quite pleasing. He has managed to come up to the mark in races where he had to improve to win,” Size said.
When directly asked if the horse could still be improving, Size said: “That's what the strike rate tells you. If they win nine out of 10 it means there’s more there so it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued to make further steps.
“Now that he’s four, normally in Hong Kong they become a little bit stronger as four-year-olds and he’s done that this season; he is certainly stronger and a better horse for his age.”
That sounds ominous, to say the least, for rivals but Size did concede the race could come down to his four and Mr Stunning - the horse he trained to win the race last year but who is now under the management of Size’s former trainee Frankie Lor.
“It very well could be the case. He's a very brave horse Mr Stunning and he always runs a good race,” Size said.
The Australian-born trainer also spoke positively of his Jockey Club Sprint third Beat The Clock, who looks his logical second seed, and of Ivictory and D B Pin who are Group 1 winners, unlike their likely shorter priced stablemates.
“Beat The Clock, he's a good horse fresh and he raced that way the other day; he's only had one run in so he’s still relatively fresh and he doesn’t have a long program. He gets back a bit in his races, he’s not a speed horse but he can run the quickest final section of any of my horses. That's his weapon, he can run really fast at the end of the race,” he said.
D B Pin, runner-up in the race last year, was also having his first run for the season - after an injury enforced lay-off - when last of nine in the G2 Jockey Club Sprint.
“He had knee surgery before he came to Hong Kong so was always a little bit suspect here but he’s always been sound for us. The day before he was due to go to Dubai I noticed one of his tendons wasn’t quite correct. That was March and his only run since then was quite a pleasing effort. He was beaten about four lengths and he should improve pretty quickly from that,” he said.
This year’s G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize winner Ivictory has to improve markedly off two poor lead-in runs but Size said any give in the ground could precipitate that improvement.
“He hasn’t shown that there’s anything amiss with him, he’s never given that indication this season. The day he won the Group 1 race there was some rain around and this track normally slows down a bit for international day so maybe he appreciates winter tracks or tracks that are not so fast. They forecast some rain so that might give him a chance,” he said.
As to the Mile, Size offered his appraisal of his two runners.
“What Else But You had some soundness issues and didn’t race for a long time. He’s had two runs back, he’s quite sound and healthy and strong. He certainly appreciates any rain-affected ground so he’d welcome some rain. I’d say he’s entitled to have some sort of chance.
“Nothingilikemore has won a domestic Group 1 at this track and distance so has some sort of record to speak of. He’s little bit horse shy so if he draws a wide gate he'd probably run a lot better,” he said. Nothingilikemore drew 11.