Werther (yellow) finishes second to Time Warp (inside) in the G1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup.
©Hong Kong Jockey Club
By Andrew Hawkins
Trainer John Moore is hopeful that his “forgotten” stable star Werther can defy top-weight fresh in Sunday’s (3 June) G3 Lion Rock Trophy Handicap (1600m) with a trip to Japan all but confirmed for the former Horse of the Year.
The Lion Rock Trophy is one of Hong Kong’s newest features, having entered the calendar in 2016. Moore is the only winning trainer in the race’s brief history, taking the spoils with Rapper Dragon in 2016 and Booming Delight last year.
“Hopefully, it can be another successful Lion Rock Trophy with Werther,” Moore said. “It seems like he’s the forgotten horse in town these days and I really don’t think he should be forgotten on Sunday. He might have to give away 10-plus pounds to most of the field but he will just keep hitting the line first-up at the mile. Don’t make a mistake, he’s going in with a solid chance of winning this, especially from a good gate.”
Werther has not raced since the G1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup (2000m), when he appeared certain to race past the Tony Cruz-trained Time Warp only to falter in the final strides and finish a half-length second. His time that day of 2m 00.03s would have been enough to lower Jim And Tonic’s 19-year course record on its own, but in producing such an effort, the Tavistock six-year-old bled from both nostrils and incurred an automatic three-month ban from racing.
“The comeback of Werther is sure to be one of the stories of the race,” Moore said. “He is one of Hong Kong’s top three beyond a mile along with Time Warp and Pakistan Star, and maybe he is still the best here. I think, if he’d been right, he would have won the Gold Cup and beaten Time Warp, while he is one-all with Pakistan Star and neither has raced the other when they’ve been at the top of their game.
“So even though it’s a trip short of his best, I think on class alone he’s a squeak.”
Werther has been brought along slowly by Moore. He has been given two trials over 1200m on the Sha Tin dirt with new raceday rider Douglas Whyte in the saddle, catching the eye in flashing home for third in his most recent hit out on 25 May.
“He’s back on track,” Moore said. “He is really working well and his trial was great the other day. He’s done everything right, his weight is spot on, he’s sound, my French riding boy reports that he is coming along nicely so I’m very happy. A good gate (three) is the cherry on top, he should be able to lay up just off the speed.
“We’re taking the blinkers off and putting the hood on him for the first time. We want to make sure, fresh, that he doesn’t get too keen. It means that Douglas will probably have to niggle him along a little bit, but I think that’s better than racing too fiercely coming off the bleed.”
The three-month ban meant that Werther missed the G1 Audemars Piguet QEII Cup (2000m), a race he won in 2016 and placed in last year, as well as the G1 Standard Chartered Champions &; Cup (2400m), which he won in a canter 12 months ago.
“You want him to be in those big races because you’d know he would be competitive, so it was disappointing,” Moore said. “He only has six or seven runs a season so it did throw a spanner in the mix and it caught me off-guard. Sometimes, though, a break can be a blessing – look at Pakistan Star’s form now. For us, it’s opened up a door that we probably wouldn’t have considered otherwise.”
That door is the G1 Takarazuka Kinen, one of Japan’s premier races and one of two features considered an “all-star” race. The 2200m contest will be run at Osaka’s Hanshin racecourse on 24 June.
“It’s all been booked,” Moore said. “We’ll wait and see how he runs on Sunday and, more importantly, he will be scoped afterwards. He’s been clean though after his trials and serious gallops this time in so as long as there is no bleed, he’ll head to Osaka on the 12th.
“If he goes there and puts his right foot forward, he will be a chance. He did beat a Takarazuka Kinen winner (Lovely Day) when he won the QEII. It can rain in Osaka at this time of year so if he did get some cut in the ground, even better.”
If Werther does make the trip, he will be the first Moore trainee in over a decade to travel to Japan. Joyful Winner contested the G1 Yasuda Kinen (1600m) twice, finishing third to Bullish Luck in 2006 before a midfield result the following year, while Able One was also well-beaten in the 2007 Yasuda Kinen.
Werther (133lb) is one of two Hong Kong G1 winners in the Lion Rock Trophy, with Cruz’s 2016 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile victor Beauty Only (130lb) also in the mix. Cruz also saddles up Romantic Touch (116lb) and The Golden Age (113lb).
Champion trainer John Size sends out Dinozzo (121lb) and Prawn Baba (113lb), while the Caspar Fownes-trained Joyful Trinity (115lb), Ricky Yiu’s Packing Dragon (113lb), dirt specialist Classic Emperor (113lb) for Chris So and the Tony Millard-prepared Sichuan Dar (113lb) complete the field.
The Lion Rock Trophy is the seventh of 10 races at Sha Tin on Sunday and is scheduled for 9.10am. The opener, the Class 4 HKU Faculties Of Architecture And Engineering Handicap (1400m), is set for 5.45am.