[This feature was published at HKJC.com: PHOTOS courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club]
Twelve weeks ago, Waikuku was a racehorse with only two races to show for what several good judges felt was an abundance of potential. Five further races and four beguiling wins later, the four-year-old will take his place in Sunday’s (17 March) BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) as the contest’s highest-rated contender.
Waikuku is the first foal of a modest race mare, sired by a talented racehorse but unfashionable stallion whose racing and stud careers were curtailed by injury. He was born and raised on a farm with a rock n’roll connection and is now aiming to give one of Hong Kong’s most famous racing families a first victory in the most coveted race on Sha Tin’s calendar.
John Size, the gelding’s trainer, has plotted a path to the final leg of Sha Tin’s three-race Four-Year-Old Classic Series that bears similarity to Ping Hai Star’s march to Derby victory 12 months ago. Both Size gallopers ascended the Hong Kong ratings with a string of closely-packed wins in 1400m handicaps; each avoided legs one and two of the classic fray. A divergence, though, came in Waikuku’s final lead-up as, unlike Ping Hai Star, Size stretched him to 1800m for an impressive score.
The Irish import arrived at that first run beyond 1400m fully seven and a half months after his former trainer John Oxx and his then owner Thomas Breen had considered the very same move.
“I ran him over seven (furlongs) but before we sold him I was wondering where we’d run him next and I was tempted, looking at his pedigree, to stretch him out,” Oxx recalls when contacted by phone at his famous Currabeg Stables in Ireland.
Oxx is a multiple Group 1 and Classic-winning trainer, the man behind the careers of outstanding talents like Sinndar, Sea The Stars, Ridgewood Pearl, Timarida, Azamour, Namid and Alamshar. He also oversaw the early career of Akeed Mofeed before Pan Sutong paid a large sum to relocate the colt to Sha Tin: Richard Gibson trained him to win the 2013 Hong Kong Derby and G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup.
“I had a race in mind over nine and a half furlongs, and I thought he could go a mile and a quarter,” Oxx says of Waikuku, who, it turns out, is not named after the New Zealand coastal town – at least, not directly – but in honour of Breen’s home, also named Waikuku.
Oxx, 69 and in the autumn of his illustrious career, had good reason to think the bay would see out the 1900m distance, despite any misgivings arising from his sire, Harbour Watch. That horse was a high-class athlete but untried beyond six furlongs and unraced beyond his juvenile season.
“I thought there was enough on the dam’s side to stay,” he says. “She was a young mare but she was a sister to a horse that stayed a mile and a quarter and had good middle-distance horses in the pedigree. The next dam is by In The Wings who stayed well, so there’s a bit of stamina there and we don’t get many clues from Harbour Watch.”
Waikuku’s fifth dam, Miss Toshiba, won the G2 Pretty Polly Stakes in Ireland and the G1 Vanity Handicap in the United States.
Harbour Watch was bred by Thomas Molan at Riversfield Stud in County Limerick, a two-hour drive heading southwest from Currabeg. As a precocious colt he won the G2 Richmond Stakes (1200m) at Goodwood for Richard Hannon snr – the last of his three starts – and was retired after fracturing a hind leg in the build-up to the G1 Dewhurst Stakes. The effects of that racing injury have since led to his retirement from the Tweenhills Stud stallion roster.
The Molan family purchased Riversfield Stud 15 years ago from Don Burton and his then-wife, the late Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Irish band The Cranberries.
It is Shane Molan, Thomas Molan’s son, who is responsible for Waikuku’s birth. Molan liked the look of his dam, the Danehill Dancer mare London Plane, and bought her for €13,500 out of the 2013 Goffs February Sale; he sent the mare to Harbour Watch after she failed to produce in her first year.
“She’s the first mare I bought in my own name and he’s the first foal I bred in my own name,” Molan says.
“She was a filly out of training. She’d shown ability on the track without winning, which made her affordable for me. She’s a full-sister to the Group 3 horse, Al Waab, who won over a mile and a quarter.”
In Waikuku’s Hong Kong races so far, he has shown toughness as well as an ability to relax in the run. That has been no surprise to Molan.
“Waikuku was great to deal with,” he says. “He was a very straightforward, athletic foal, good bone, good size for a first foal. We kept him as a yearling too and he was a lovely mover. He had a great temperament but also had toughness about him.
“You can never tell how good they’ll go on to be but he did have a bit of quality in that he was athletic and a great mover. He was enjoying his yearling prep, he was tough, he enjoyed his work.”
A bit of a bargain
Molan took Waikuku to the Tattersalls Ireland September Yearling Sale in 2016. There he caught Oxx’s eye and was sold for €33,000.
“He was a fine looking horse with plenty of size and scope; big, strong quarters on him,” the trainer says. “He was a lovely mover right from the start. You could pick him out from the string; he was just such a good, fluent mover with a big stride on him.”
But, to Oxx, it was clear the rangy youngster “needed a bit of time” and so did not debut until mid-August of his two-year-old season.
“He ran in a particularly good maiden at The Curragh. It was for unraced horses so you didn’t know what you were running into when you went there but it was a nice educational run; just getting him in among the horses and then hands and heels to finish fifth, only beaten a couple of lengths.
“I think something like eight horses in that race ended up with a rating between 100 and 110, it was a fantastic field of runners. He was just coasting along there and finished on their heels,” he continues.
“The horse had a small setback then and we couldn’t run and win his maiden at two but he’d have been well capable of it. Then he had a series of small, minor muscular things in the spring of last year so we didn’t run him until July and he won comfortably.”
Hong Kong suitors
Waikuku’s impressive maiden score was achieved over seven furlongs at Leopardstown on 19 July last year, just at the time when Hong Kong interests were scouring for potential Derby candidates.
“It was a pretty taking performance,” remembers Alastair Donald of the SackvilleDonald bloodstock agency. “I called Mr Oxx after the race because I identified that he might be for sale and I have a client who has had various horses with John Oxx over the years and I have quite a good relationship with him – he pretty much said to me he thought this horse was the real deal, a proper Group horse and as good as he’d had for a few years.
“He said the horse wasn’t really buyable, though, because they wanted to run him in Stakes company and see what they had. But we were brave off the back of this information and made a pretty good offer for what was effectively a maiden winner.”
Donald says he believes there were “four or five” other interested Hong Kong parties tempting Breen to sell his exciting prospect.
“I haven’t had many good horses the last few years,” Oxx says. “He was the best one I’ve had in a while, but we got a good offer from Hong Kong. The owner was slow to let him go, I must say, but he felt he couldn’t refuse it and off he went.”
With the backing of big-time owner Siu Pak Kwan, Donald was able to make an offer that stuck.
“The figures were pretty attractive,” he says. “Effectively, we were paying the price for a Listed class horse that had only won a maiden and luckily it proved to be right.”
Donald has sourced a number of notable gallopers for the Siu family – the top-class Time Warp and Irian among them. He has also identified and brokered deals on three previous Hong Kong Derby winners but not for the Siu family whose variations on the red and black striped silks have not known Derby glory.
Waikuku arrived in Hong Kong on 15 September 2018. When he made his debut with an eye-catching nose second over 1200m two days before Christmas, he carried the pink-capped colours of Jocelyn Siu Yang Hin Ting. Size was the man handed responsibility for his further development.
“Since he came to Hong Kong we’d been hoping to point him in that (the Derby) direction,” Size says. “As we went along and asked him to qualify and go there he came up to the mark pretty quickly.”
As Molan and Oxx had already discovered, Size too found that Waikuku “was quite willing to go on with it.”
The big test
Waikuku’s run of four consecutive wins since that Sha Tin debut defeat lifted him to a rating of 108, four points clear of top-class Australian imports Furore and Dark Dream.
All seemed to be going smoothly until last Sunday (10 March) when the gelding was found to have a sore foot. Light exercise, swimming and trotting, ensued until Thursday morning (14 March) when Waikuku worked to the “normal” satisfaction of Size. But Thursday also resulted in a wide Gate 14 berth at the Derby barrier draw.
Hong Kong’s champion trainer assuaged many fears when saying: “He had a sore foot and by the afternoon it seemed ok. He’s continued to make normal progress since then so I think he’ll be fine for the race. I think he can gallop on it.”
Molan, Oxx and Breen have watched Waikuku’s progress from afar with pride and will do so again on Sunday.
“I’ve enjoyed watching him because I really did like the horse and thought he had plenty of potential,” Oxx says. “I’m delighted to see him doing so well and he’s obviously in the right hands, he’s with a very good trainer so he’d have every chance.
“Waikuku was the first yearling Tommy bought with me and he’s bought a few more since and is having a great bit of fun watching Waikuku. I’m sure there’s a little bit of regret but he’s getting a bit of fun out of watching his races and keeping up-to-date with what’s happening to him. He still feels he’s his horse!”
Molan, meanwhile, believes the distance this weekend should not be a problem, even though he envisaged he was probably breeding a miler when he opted to go with Harbour Watch.
“We’ve had a few foals by Harbour Watch and they all had a bit of size and scope about them, so I suppose on paper they were only going to get seven (furlongs) or a mile, but physically they’ve looked like they’d take a bit of time and get a bit of a trip,” he says.
“It seems that the good ones are going a mile or a mile and a quarter. And the last win was the most impressive for me the way he settled back and kept going to the line.”
Donald was there for the barrier draw on Thursday and will be at Sha Tin this weekend. A Waikuku success would bring with it a particular delight.
“Of our three Derby wins I think this one would mean the most,” he says. “Mr Siu’s been a good client and put a lot of money into trying to win this race.
“They’re lovely people and I would be really pleased to try and win it for them. It was great them winning the Hong Kong Cup with Time Warp but I think this is the one at the top of the pile they’d like to win.”
Waikuku and his ever-present jockey Joao Moreira face a tricky task from their wide gate on Sunday afternoon, but as Oxx says, “He’s just a fine horse,” and it takes a fine horse to win a Hong Kong Derby these days.