By David Morgan
Caspar Fownes has wasted no time in blasting to an early lead in the Hong Kong trainers’ premiership but the handler is taking a patient tack with Rise High, who 12 months ago pulled the rug from under Beauty Generation in a stunning result that marked the beginning of the champion’s decline from apparent invincibility.
Rise High’s subsequent tendon injury and long recovery mean his first action this campaign could be at December’s Hong Kong International Races, fully one year on from his latest start when third in the G1 Hong Kong Cup (2,000m). That being so, the talented six-year-old will not get the chance of a repeat win over Beauty Generation in Sunday’s G2 Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy Handicap (1,600m), when the old champ will at once attempt to prove he still has a big race in the locker and steady the shooting ascent of the scene’s new star turn, Golden Sixty.
Fownes is instead looking at the long game with Rise High, a horse he has long held in the highest regard.
“He’s coming off this injury, so instead of the Hong Kong Cup or the Vase, I might run him straight into the Hong Kong Mile first-up,” Fownes revealed. “He’s not going to have the miles in his legs to go first-up over 2,000 metres or a mile and a half, but we’ll have to see what’s happening with the overseas horses: at this point we don’t know if the Japanese are coming – are the Europeans coming? It’s really up in the air, no one seems to know what’s going on.”
Rise High was diagnosed with a near-fore tendon injury on 3 January and has had only two gallops since his mid-August return to Sha Tin from Conghua, the second of those on 3 October, but his race comeback has been delayed by a further setback.
“I’m very happy with how he’s coming back from that tendon injury, but unfortunately he knocked his splint, so he has an active splint on his left fore. That means we’ve just had to take things easy with him between swimming and trotting work,” Fownes said.
“It’s cost us because he was going to have his first race in the middle of November but that won’t happen now. A splint can be very painful when they’re active and then when they die down, you’re ok. Hopefully it settles down in the next two weeks and we can give him a nice preparation for December. We won’t rush.”
Such splint bone injuries are common and generally don’t have an adverse impact on a racehorse long term, but tendon injuries always cause greater concern for connections and oftentimes curtail or end a horse’s career.
In recent years, two of Hong Kong’s all-time greats, Able Friend and Ambitious Dragon, returned from tendon injuries to compete with merit at the highest level but neither was able to recapture their brilliant best. Able Friend raced again only four times before being forced into retirement, while Ambitious Dragon had the same number of races following his return from an 18-month recovery.
Fownes is well aware of the need for a patient, steady recuperation.
“It’s very frustrating because I know what I’ve got to work with, what ability he has,” he said. “At the same time, I’m a professional and I’ve got to say, ‘you know what, we’ve got to sacrifice our time now and we’ll have our day in the sun later on’. We’ve just got to bring him along steadily, keep him sound and get him back to full fitness, and when we do, we’ll have something special to work with.
“We’re certainly not going to rush Rise High, we’ve still got some great racing later in the season: we’ve got the Stewards’ Cup, the Hong Kong Gold Cup, the QEII Cup, all those races that I can have him ready for. And, if he’s not right, he won’t be running in December.”
Compounding the trainer’s frustration is his view that the Irish import – a G3 winner for Ken Condon as a juvenile – has matured into his physique.
“Looking at the horse, he’s done really well in the last 10 months,” Fownes said. “He’s become a real horse, he’s filled out in his frame and I would say he would have improved a heap, so I’m looking forward to prepping him for the races. I’m sure he’ll be a length to a length and a half better this season!”
In the meantime, Fownes will rely on G1 Champions Mile hero Southern Legend and G3 Premier Plate Handicap (1,800m) winner Dances With Dragon in Sha Tin’s weekend feature race, as he looks to December’s Group 1 features and beyond in his long push through to July for what he hopes will bring a fourth Hong Kong trainers’ championship.
“I’m going good, I’ve got some nice horses and I’m very happy because I’ve got a nice string to work with across the classes. I’m going to hit quite a nice, high number, it’s just whether or not I can win the championship – that’s going to be tough – but I’ll certainly be up there giving it my best, that’s for sure,” he said.