By Graham Cunningham/HKJC
“The horse of Hong Kong coming after the mare of the world!”
Certain race calls pass into folklore and David Raphael’s cry from on high as the 2000 Hong Kong Mile reached boiling point is a classic example. Sunline and Fairy King Prawn fought out one of the most memorable duels in HKIR history that day and the memories remain vivid for three key players …
Listen to some millennials and you could be forgiven for thinking that global racing came out of the womb squealing at the same time as Twitter and Instagram. But try telling that to more than 70,000 people who combined to create some of the loudest roars ever heard at Sha Tin on a warm December day back in 2000.
Aussie raider Falvelon pipped American star Morluc in the Sprint and thwarted the same rival after an even closer battle in 2001.
Sir Michael Stoute’s Daliapour continued Europe’s Vase domination to crown Johnny Murtagh’s golden G1 year, while Godolphin globetrotter Fantastic Light completed a 2000 race odyssey that took in Dubai, England, three trips to America and one to Japan by landing the Hong Kong Cup under Frankie Dettori.
Only an epic head-to-head could steal the show on a card of such sustained global drama and Sunline’s rider Greg Childs doesn’t hesitate when asked where that day rates on her long list of triumphs.
“The battle with Hong Kong’s star Fairy King Prawn would be number one, along with her second Cox Plate,” he says. “And that’s because the true calibre of a champion is that they have to take on international horses outside their comfort zone.”
Childs was no stranger to Hong Kong. His son and daughter Jordan and Tayla – both now riding professionally in Australia – were born in the city during his stints as a Club jockey and his 2000 visit involved an element of redemption.
Sunline was firmly established as one of the most destructive front-runners on the planet when she returned to Sha Tin after demolishing Australia’s finest for her second Cox Plate success.
Meanwhile, Fairy King Prawn had won the inaugural Hong Kong Sprint for Ricky Yiu in 1999 before joining Ivan Allan to make history as the first Hong Kong horse ever to win a foreign G1 in Tokyo’s Yasuda Kinen.
“There was definitely a sense of unfinished business,” adds Childs. “Sunline disappointed as hot favourite for the Hong Kong Cup in 1999, running her worst race ever, but with hindsight she only truly stayed 2,000m on tight tracks with short straights like Moonee Valley.
“But her trainer Trevor McKee was determined to take her back to Hong Kong and the Mile was a much better fit. There were some great horses in town but all week the focus seemed on our race, which was set up as a ‘Clash of the Titans’ between the local superstar and this great mare who had been so dominant in Australia and New Zealand.
Childs was anxious not to get drawn into an early battle – and some careless pre-race tactical talk to that effect proved costly later on – but an undemanding first quarter of 25.0s helped Sunline find the front without much effort.
“We were able to control the race but Trevor always liked me to put the pressure on earlier than with normal horses because Sunline had such a high cruising speed,” says Childs. “Rounding the turn we put the acid to the test and she lifted and started to clear the pack.
“But then I sensed this horse to my left in the corner of my vision. I also sensed the crowd lift, so I just presumed it was Fairy King Prawn and Robbie Fradd. He kept coming and coming, Sunline kept digging, and it was two great titans stride for stride throughout the last 200m.”
Raphael’s final line as the pair flashed home was “Fairy King Prawn dived – but he missed.” Childs wasn’t so confident, recalling “as we hit the line I thought I’d won but I couldn’t be sure and it wasn’t until I asked the clerk of the course as I pulled up that I knew we’d done it.”
History relates that Childs lost a huge chunk of his winning percentage when stewards ruled his midweek tactical chats with a fellow rider and a journalist had prejudiced the good reputation of racing.
But memories of a HK$300,000 fine pale compared to those of a horse who ended her career the winner of 32 of 48 starts with seven Horse of the Year titles in Australia and New Zealand and her powerful frame honoured by postage stamps on both sides of the Ditch.
“All good horses have an X-factor and hers was brute strength in her chest and shoulder area,” he says. “She was a big, outstanding horse with a lot of power and that stood her in good stead for racing at such a high level for so long.
“The Cup was a brilliant race with a fantastic climax and I believe Sunline has the advantage on other champions in that she travelled the world, raced in four countries and won in three. She raced right and left handed and won G1 races from 1200m to 2000m. That’s what elevates her – I can’t think of one to match her using those metrics.”
Claire Bird: Special bond the key to HKIR glory
Sunline’s longtime groom and constant companion Claire Bird still has a sense of wonder in her voice as she recalls the day the powerhouse Kiwi mare burned her brilliance into HKIR history.
“I was used to big occasions with Sunline but I couldn’t believe the crowds at Sha Tin and, as I’m short, it was really hard to see the race clearly from ground level,” she says.
What Bird saw for the first 1,200m suggested the script was going to plan but, as Fairy King Prawn bore down, the tension grew in tandem with the roar of a crowd who sent the visitor off as 6-5 favourite.
“I just kept praying for the winning post to come,” she says. “It was a long flight home on Christmas Day when she got beaten in 1999 and the whole idea of going back to Hong Kong in 2000 was to show the world just how good she was. It was close – a bit too close for comfort – but the feeling when the result was announced was incredible.”
Sunline tried to run away on the first day that Bird ever rode her but the rapport that grew subsequently played a vital role in the fiery mare’s dominance.
“We still had the odd argument when she got cantankerous but we had a bond based on mutual trust that helped change my life in so many ways,” she says.
“We expected so much on her first trip to Hong Kong but we also learned a lot and, because we knew how good she was, Hong Kong was the perfect place to show her off the following year.
“If anything, she preferred being away from home. She was a bit of a diva as she loved attention and if she wasn’t getting it she would squeal or kick just to make sure people noticed her.
“She was almost unbeatable in that year she won the Hong Kong Mile and, although I’m completely biased, I don’t think there’s been another quite like her since.”
Bird was just 26 when Sunline won in Hong Kong and, now based in Queensland, her memories are as vivid as ever. “It was 20 years ago but it feels more like two,” she concludes. “She was my horse and I’ll always treasure what I had with her. People always refer to me as the Sunline Girl – and I’m more than happy with that.”
David Raphael: race caller reflects on equine work of art
David Raphael called thousands of races during his commentary career but has no doubt the battle between Sunline and Fairy King Prawn was the most memorable.
“There may have been bigger duels but it’s hard to think of many that had people talking like that one beforehand and it lived up to the industry and public hype spectacularly,” he says.
“It came at a time when Hong Kong was desperate to cement itself as a global player and Fairy King Prawn had helped that tremendously with his Yasuda Kinen win six months earlier.
“That HKIR day in 2000 was a superb day’s racing all round, but all week the talk had been about whether the Kiwi mare could beat the local superstar and I truly think the way it panned out makes it the most important race in Hong Kong history.”
And what about that famous line involving the horse of Hong Kong coming after the mare of the world? “I never prepared lines before a race and that one just came out naturally when I saw Fairy King Prawn charging through,” adds Raphael.
“Of course, I do take pride in having played a small part in something so special. A lot of people still come up to me at the races and talk about that call and the race itself. And when they do you can also generally bet that the person in question is a Kiwi!”
• Find out more about the Longines HKIR at the HKJC website