[This article was published in the June 2018 edition of Badges magazine: PHOTOS courtesy of the Hong Kong Jockey Club].
Pakistan Star is more than just a racehorse. Now, as far as one knows, a racehorse lacks the capacity to understand that that is in fact what he or she is, so it can be assumed that Pakistan Star certainly does not comprehend that he is also a lauded hero, or a derided villain, depending on the day in question.
Whether he knows it or not, the five-year-old is a racer of uncommon abilities. And that latent athletic brilliance, allied to an eccentric temperament and a back story bursting with drama, has long since lifted him above the plateau on which elite athletes, no matter how talented, usually exist.
Sir Winston Churchill once talked of, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Britain’s war-time bulldog was making reference to Russia, but Pakistan Star is a fairly snug fit for that observation, too, and for that, he has gained cult status within horseracing’s global church.
As with many a follower of flawed objects of adoration, the faith of Pakistan Star’s acolytes has shifted, fluctuated, and swayed with every exhilarating win, brilliant near-miss, frustrating loss and heel-digging refusal to budge one step further. Boos have at times rung out around his Sha Tin temple, withering outpourings of disillusionment from wavering disciples: and who could forget the jarring jeers?
They were heard when the 1.2 favourite breezed home alone after pulling up in last season’s G3 Premier Plate. They pierced again when, in the G2 Chairman’s Trophy, the German-bred tailed off and then rallied through a barely believable closing run to finish within reach of the victor: the crowd’s raucous, mocking barbs clearly unsettled the unwitting beast as he returned to be unsaddled under Joao Moreira. The horse was impervious to the actual words, of course; Moreira was not and slung back some choice banter.
But when the devotees are matching their faith with dollars from hard-earned pay cheques, sentiment can so easily give way to raw anger; obscenities rain from contorted mouths and wagging fingers abuse the blamed.
Just as Churchill talked of a key to understanding the Russia conundrum, so trainer Tony Cruz needed to find the code to unlock Pakistan Star. The galloper’s sensational win in the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup suggests that the key has been found, or at the very least the lock has been picked.
What this year’s APQEII Cup lacked in numbers it made up for in intrigue. Pakistan Star was one of eight horses twitching in the starting gates at around 4.40pm on that muggy Sunday in April.
Drawn tightest to the rail in gate one, he had to his immediate left Eagle Way; one berth further out was Moreira’s selected ride, Ping Hai Star, a sensational winner of the Hong Kong Derby but still a relatively unknown quantity; Japan had two in the line-up, the admirable Danburite and the classic winner Al Ain – but Al Ain had drawn comparisons with Pakistan Star for his bizarre trackwork antics a couple of days earlier and had already looked to be fizzing en route to being saddled; then there was Time Warp, another Cruz galloper, a mighty front-runner and the winner of two Group 1’s at the distance already this term – the track record holder, no less.
Crouched upon Pakistan Star’s back was William Buick, a leading British-based rider with a big-race reputation, fine hands and a less-than-glowing record at Sha Tin. Just one race prior, the Godolphin jockey had fallen into the trap of trying to match the Hong Kong speed atop the European sprinter Blue Point in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize – the move failed. Buick only found out that he had been booked to ride one of world racing’s most notorious talents when he touched down at Chek Lap Kok, the third choice after first Silvestre de Sousa and then Kerrin McEvoy had had to pull out.
Cruz was unperturbed by the jockey merry-go-round. A top rider in his day, the veteran handler is one for giving instructions to his riders. He had said three days earlier, at the barrier draw, “We won’t plan to take him back, he’ll sit where he breaks. As we saw in the barrier trial, he showed speed to be up there – he jumped away well.” That was the instruction to Buick – in essence, let him move forward, don’t give him reason to think about stopping, find a rhythm.
Pakistan Star sprang the gate and rapidly hit his stride as Buick glanced across to see Time Warp and Danburite competing for the lead. The rider let his mount stalk that pair, and the mercurial Shamardal gelding was content. He was still there when the tempo increased on the sweep to the home turn; still there when they kicked into the stretch; still there at the 300-metre mark when the pace pair split to leave a welcoming gap; and then he was gone.
The acceleration was breathtaking. The crowd of 48,000, it seemed, inhaled in synchrony: lungs inflated, their voices roared out. The frustrations, disappointments and dashed hopes of past days were released in a voluminous cacophony. The noise was immense: so, too, the victory. The hero had atoned.
“He’s blown them all away!” said Cruz, his grin broad, a spark of glee in his eyes.
Pakistan Star had come good at last. Almost two years on from his sensational last-to-first debut win – the race that zipped around the internet and captured the imagination of racing fans across the globe – the Group 1 talent had his Group 1 win.
“He felt beautiful today and when he quickened up the straight he felt like a world class mile-and-a-quarter horse – the field was stacked with stars,” was Buick’s appraisal.
Owner Kerm Din, a racing fan at heart and a man of dignity, was clearly relieved as much as he was delighted in the immediate aftermath, as well-wishers hugged his shoulders and clasped his hand.
Cruz and his team, with a little advice along the way from outside experts like Monty Roberts, had worked to understand Pakistan Star’s quirks and get him back to racing after his troubles last year. A horseman of outward confidence, publicly assured in his abilities, Cruz could not hide the kick he got out of the win – his face was glowing, enjoyment emanating. He admitted that he had learned plenty in the past year.
“He’s taught me a lot, how he thinks – he’s got a racing mind now, he wants to race,” he said.
With two other Group 1 contests on the card, it was billed as Champions Day. Beauty Generation may well have earned Horse of the Year honours with his Champions Mile win – a third Group 1 this term; Ivictory marked his potential as a future champion with a straight jump from Class 2 to Group 1 victor in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize; but Pakistan Star’s APQEII Cup performance stole the show.
The green-hooded enigma might well go on to dominate; he could – pray not – revert to his old antics. But whatever the future might hold, on this day Pakistan Star was the champion his devoted fans had long believed in. And the waverers loved him too.