x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

JJ The Jet Plane looking to fly in Al Quoz Sprint

Trainer Houdalakis took a chance on a horse nobody wanted and, on Saturday, expects JJ The Jet Plane to fly in Sprint.

JJ The Jet Plane gallops around Meydan Racecourse yesterday ahead of the Al Quoz Sprint on Saturday.
JJ The Jet Plane gallops around Meydan Racecourse yesterday ahead of the Al Quoz Sprint on Saturday.

The story of JJ The Jet Plane, the Al Quoz Sprint favourite, and his trainer Lucky Houdalakis reads like a Hollywood script.

There are compelling central characters — an unwanted, ugly duckling horse failing at auction in South Africa. His sale for just R70,000 (Dh36,000). His blossoming to global renown and his winnings of more than R12m (Dh6.3m).

There is the trainer, a former jockey who was forced to retire after receiving a devastating kick from a horse in 2003. There is his two-year rehabilitation battle despite a badly shattered leg. His reluctant foray into training. And finally, his ultimate triumph in winning six Grade 1 races with his stable star, JJ The Jet Plane.

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There is also the twisting plot, which takes in the heady highs and black lows that only those on racing's roller-coaster can really understand.

The screen play would go something like this: JJ The Jet Plane, a winner of three Grade 1 sprint races in South Africa, moves to Dubai Carnival maestro Mike de Kock for an international campaign.

The horse runs fourth and fifth in two of England's biggest sprints. There is a disagreement between the owners and the trainer and the horse is transferred to Richard Hannon's yard. There he flops in four runs in as many weeks, a heavy workload for any horse, prompting part-owner Houdalakis to bring the gelding back to South Africa.

Houdalakis then works his magic on a dejected JJ The Jet Plane who, after convalescing in a paddock, rediscovers his form, claiming another three Grade 1s.

Yet it could all have been so different. After his realisation that he would never ride again, Houdalakis stepped away from horses altogether.

"I did rehab for two years. I tried and tried, and then I realised I wouldn't make it back," he said.

"I was actually having a lovely life, playing golf every day, going for lunches, then my wife pulled the reins and got my buddies together and they said, 'No, you know horses, that's where you're going', and they put me to train. Very reluctantly I must add."

And though he has a small string, Houdalakis proved a success. As well as JJ The Jet Plane, he trained a filly called Supper Club to Group 2 and 3 success.

Earlier this season, the sprinter was 11th on his Tapeta debut but came back to win on his preferred turf.

On the track yesterday, Houdalakis was putting the finishing touches to his sprinter's preparations for the Al Quoz Sprint.

"He is ticking over," said the trainer, who has only been conditioning racehorses at his Vaal Racecourse base for three-and-a-half years. "He was overweight by about 20kgs on his first run here in Dubai but he's at his racing weight now."

Houdalakis, real name Michael, is known to everybody as "Lucky". And he considers himself a lucky man to have kept hold of his superstar.

"It is tough for a small trainer to hold on to the good horses," he said. "As soon as they start winning people with lots of money become interested and offer huge sums.

"We were offered US$1m (Dh3.67m) for him, but the owners are passionate and they are enjoying the ride and turned it down. This horse has taken us places we never would have been."

It was a different story when JJ The Jet Plane was an ugly, skew, little horse, cutting a dejected figure in the auction ring.

"No one wanted him," Houdalakis said. "Hennie [du Preeze, one of JJ's owners] bought him just because he was a son of Jet Master.

"The [stud] service to Jet Master is R250,000 so it was worth it in our eyes, but he was not impressive."

The youngster had already been named JJ The Jet Plane by the breeder's granddaughter.

"I could get on with that name," Houdalakis said. "A lot of people didn't know what JJ The Jet Plane was, but I remember when my daughter was young and I was injured so I couldn't ride.

"At about 5.30am she'd come along with a blanket and put on the Cartoon Network and that's where I learnt who JJ The Jet Plane was. When we got the horse I knew exactly who he was - a little blue aeroplane."

Now Houdalakis is hoping his little aeroplane can fly on Saturday evening under jockey, Bernard Fayd'Herbe.

"He's fit and he's well," said the trainer. "I'm not even looking at the competition. I just concentrate on my horse and his race and he's ready."

 

sports@thenational.ae