x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Underdogs bark loud on a night of upsets at Dubai World Cup

Much of the limelight went to some of racing's biggest names, but the Meydan Racecourse provided a platform for the small guy to flourish as well.

Jockey Bernard Fayd Herb comes in with JJ The Jet Plane at the front in the Al Quoz Sprint race.
Jockey Bernard Fayd Herb comes in with JJ The Jet Plane at the front in the Al Quoz Sprint race.

Much of the limelight went to some of racing's biggest names last night, but Meydan Racecourse provided a platform for the small guy to flourish as well.

First to step up to the stage was Lucky Houdalakis, the South African trainer who described his victory in the Al Quoz Sprint with JJ The Jet Plane as a triumph for the underdog.

Some of the greatest trainers in racing were at Meydan last night, including the likes of Henry Cecil, the 10-time British champion, Aidan O'Brien, the Irish maestro, and Bob Baffert, the dual Dubai World Cup winner.

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And yet Houdalakis, a former jockey, has only been training for three-and-a-half years.

In fact, he was never meant to be a trainer at all, and his victorious charge was probably never meant to be a racehorse, either.

Houdalakis was forced to retire from the saddle after a catalogue of injuries. In place of a jockey's life he would instead enjoy rounds of golf and long lunches. Finally, his wife decided he had played enough.

With good fortune there was a horse that would help lift Houdalakis out of his enforced retirement.

JJ The Jet Plane failed at auction due to bad confirmation.

He was later bought for the knock-down price of R70,000 (Dh36,000) by Hendrik du Preez, who liked his breeding and sent him to Houdalakis's fledgling yard.

Now JJ The Jet Plane has won six Group 1s and 13 races in total.

"I'm only a baby trainer," Houdalakis said. "This is one of the first horses I got. I just consider myself blessed."

JJ The Jet Plane has taken Houdalakis, a part-owner, all over the world, including victories in the UAE, Hong Kong and England.

The sprinter claimed the handler's first international victory in December with the Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint from subsequent Golden Shaheen winner Rocket Man.

Early on in his career, JJ The Jet Plane's successes attracted admirers and Houdalakis turned down an offer of US$1 million (Dh3.67m) for the horse.

"It's hard for us small stables to keep horses because when they start winning the big stables come and they offer lots of money," Houdalakis said.

There was a large South African contingent at Meydan last night, and at a time when the country's sport is in the doldrums after the cricket team's shock exit from the World Cup, they had much to cheer about.

Despite his success last night, Houdalakis believed that the experience of proving himself among the world's best for the first time was incomparable.

"We were the underdogs in Hong Kong but that was awesome for the whole of South Africa," he said. "It's wonderful winning on World Cup night, but when I think of Hong Kong it still brings tears to my eyes."

If Houdalakis struck early for the underdog, then Mickael Barzalona, the young French jockey, carried the torch when he defeated Ryan Moore, the three-time British champion jockey, in the UAE Derby. No filly had ever beaten the colts in the Classic contest, but Barzalona galloped into the record books when Khawlah held on against the late surge of the O'Brien-trained Master Of The Hounds.

"Mickael is a brilliant jockey," said Godolphin's Saeed bin Suroor, Khawlah's trainer. "He has done really well for us and I think he is going to be one of the best in the world." The gilt was added in the biggest race of all when the 18-year-old finished third in the World Cup aboard Monterosso.

If the underdogs performed last night, Carl O'Callaghan, their natural leader, never got the opportunity to showcase his talents.

O'Callaghan, who would have been bidding to win his second consecutive Golden Shaheen, was dealt a blow when Kinsale King was scratched hours before the big sprint.

O'Callaghan famously slept rough under the Brooklyn Bridge before his life was changed by winning the $2m sprint last year.

"We really don't know what it is." he said. "The best way to explain it is that he had a hypersensitive reaction to something. He's got bumps on his face, and hives on his pasterns. It's really disappointing to have travelled halfway across the world and then to lose out like this."

But O'Callaghan, displaying the fighting spirit that lifts an underdog from the shadows into the light, refused to be cowed.

"I always look on the bright side and I'm just happy that the horse is OK and we didn't do anything stupid like run it. We've also got a really nice horse running at Santa Anita tonight, so life goes on."

 

sports@thenational.ae