Darren Flindell’s memorable call over the closing stages of the 2006 Hong Kong Cup is likely to get plenty or airplay in the build up to tomorrow’s (Sunday, 11 December) highpoint.
The six-year-old French-bred mare came off a heartbreaking neck defeat in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and a dominant performance two weeks later when routing her field in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket, before signing off her career with a desperate short-head verdict over Yutaka Take and Admire Moon.
The prime reason for the nostalgia is the arrival at Sha Tin of One Foot In Heaven, a four-year-old Fastnet Rock son of Pride, who lines up in the HK$16.5 million Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase (2400m) for owner/breeders Sven and Carina Hanson and trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre.
Like his celebrated dam, One Foot In Heaven has been given plenty of time to scale the racing pyramid, only tackling Listed level for the first time at the age of four in the Prix Seymour back in April.
Immediately after that success at Maisons-Laffitte, the Hansons were already mentioning the LONGINES Hong Kong International meeting as a possibility if One Foot In Heaven continued to progress as they hoped.
“To go back there with a son of Pride is a fantastic story for us as we bred both of them,” said Carina Hanson.
Royer-Dupre hasn’t been afraid to continually aim higher with a horse that didn’t debut until after last year’s Arc but who came storming home for sixth in this season’s European championship race.
“He ran well in the Arc but frustratingly he was just out of the money, finishing a nose away from getting €150,000!” said Hanson. “The first time Pride ran in the Arc she was something like 13th and then seventh the following year before being second. We hope this fellow will last for a couple of years because we want to race him and enjoy him.
“Hong Kong is a very great place to go. I think it’s the best organised meeting we have been to but it is also fun. And we race for fun – that is the key thing of our operation.”
Royer-Dupre – who also has a Vase to his name thanks to 2009 heroine Daryakana – is quick to point out the family traits that One Foot In Heaven has inherited.
“He has the same acceleration as Pride,” said the 72-year-old. “Fastnet Rock is an important stallion though he doesn’t necessarily specialise in getting horses that really accelerate. But this one is capable of it, it is his principal quality.”
One Foot In Heaven’s progress through the season has seen the French handicapper revise him upwards from 94 to 114 by the time of his victory in the Group 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris – a race won by Pride at the end of her four-year-old season – on an unsuitably sticky surface at Chantilly.
Life has been less smooth for the Royer-Dupre team since touchdown last Saturday in Hong Kong, with initial post-flight tests revealing an abnormal blood picture which kept One Foot In Heaven confined to the quarantine stables’ sand ring until Thursday morning.
While the tests have improved to the point where the colt’s health is no longer a factor, his trainer was left puzzled and dissatisfied by his work yesterday (Friday morning) and only got true reassurance today (Saturday) after he put in an improved performance.
“I have no doubt that he might lack a little for fitness but this morning he was a lot better than yesterday,” he said. “The owners love to keep their horses in training and we have built his career up gradually so I think he has a very interesting future.
“He has won on soft ground but he much prefers quick ground, which is the other way round to his mother.”
Pride didn’t even walk into Royer-Dupre’s yard on the Chemin des Aigles in the Chantilly satellite community of Gouvieux until she was a four-year-old.
“She won at Group 3 and at Group 2 level that year and he is at least upsides her because he has already won two Group 2s, a Group 3 and a Listed race,” says Royer-Dupre. “Really he is ahead of her schedule.”
Pride’s first attempt at the Hong Kong Cup ended in a neck defeat to Vengeance Of Rain under Christophe Soumillon in 2005 but the following year she and Christophe Lemaire assembled a truly spectacular series of performances, with the previous season’s Arc hero Hurricane Run among her victims at Saint-Cloud in June.
Royer-Dupre says: “That year of her six-year-old career she really started off well: she won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (Group 1); the Champion Stakes (Group 1); she was second in the Arc which she might have won but for getting trapped in behind horses. She was really impressive in the Champion Stakes when she just cantered all over the field but here in the Cup she got there too soon and almost got run down.”
With such a brilliant race mare, expectation is always high in terms of progeny and, while it has taken a decade for Pride to get a top-level performer, Sven Hanson is fiercely proud of her achievements prior to One Foot In Heaven.
“Most people think it has been difficult for her at stud but, let’s be clear, she ran until she was six,” he says. “She produced four colts and they were all winners who won twice or more. They had decent form without being champions.
“If you have a mare that breeds one good black type horse you are happy. Two is very good and three is sensational. It is a slightly unfair the way she is judged only because she was so exceptional herself.”
Despite the difficult build-up, One Foot In Heaven is set to defend family honour at a venue where all those connected with her love to win.
Soumillon has more than a century of successes in Hong Kong and kicks off his bid to add to Good Ba Ba’s 2008 Hong Kong Mile victory with One Foot In Heaven, before partnering Pure Sensation (Sprint), Giant Treasure (Mile) and Staphanos (Cup).
And win, lose or draw, One Foot In Heaven comes from a family which only seems to ever get better with age.