A chance ride at Meydan on Dubai World Cup night has Douglas Whyte eyeing a fourth victory in Sunday’s HK$20 million Audemars Piguet QEII Cup (2000m) at Sha Tin.
Dane O’Neill was booked to partner the Mike de Kock-trained Ertijaal in the G1 Dubai Turf (1800m) but that rider’s injury, sustained in an earlier race on the night, opened the door to the renewal of an old partnership. Whyte responded to fellow South African De Kock’s call, took the reins and guided the 2015 G1 Cape Derby winner to a solid fourth behind Japan’s Real Steel.
“He was drawn out wide and Mike and I had a chat about it,” recalled Whyte of his unexpected ride in Dubai. “Mike wanted me to ride him quieter with cover as opposed to racing wide, and he wanted to see him finish, so that’s what we did. He got a lovely run in the race and he certainly found the line. I reckon a couple more strides and I run third. He’s going to appreciate stepping up to 2000 metres, that’s going to benefit him, and I was pretty happy with that run.
“Mike and I go back a long way, he was assistant to Ricky Ginsberg and when Ricky Ginsberg passed away Mike took over his yard and has never looked back. I used to ride quite a bit for him. He was in the same class (at school) as my sister!”
Now Whyte finds himself aboard De Kock’s Ertijaal on his own turf. The South African ace ruled the Hong Kong circuit for 13 years, winning the premiership in each of those seasons to earn living legend status. Whilst those achievements will forever hold their lustre, things are not quite the same for the 44 year-old nowadays: Joao Moreira is king and Whyte finds himself sixth in the standings with 27 wins, wrestling for mounts amidst the chasing pack, an unthinkable state of affairs only three years ago.
Sunday is another chance to shine in the world spotlight, in the race that helped launch his Hong Kong career. It was back in 1997 that a win in the QEII Cup, atop London News, also trained by a South African, Alec Laird, rocketed Whyte on an unwavering trajectory to racing’s pinnacle.
The man they call “The Durban Demon” has a solid claim heading into Sunday’s edition. Ertijaal galloped down the Sha Tin straight on Tuesday morning, striding out fluently to clock a smart 1m 20.8s and closing out in 23.7s. That pleased Whyte.
“I’m very happy,” he said after jumping off the Hard Spun four-year-old. “He’s not a horse that over-works in the morning, he’s pretty laid back, so I had to just pick him up the last 200 metres and ask him to find the line, which he did. He’s a lovely, big-moving horse, a lot of him, he was having a nice blow and I’m sure he will come on from that gallop and will be spot-on on Sunday.
“I think he’ll enjoy the faster pace and the flat easiness of Sha Tin. He’s very uncomplicated. If he gets a good barrier that will help his cause but he’s certainly not one-dimensional – he’s a horse that can go forward and as everyone saw last time I rode him slightly quieter and he found the line, so he’s certainly flexible from that point of view. I think the track and the pace and the distance will certainly suit him.”
Whyte recognises the task at hand. The world’s ninth highest-rated race, according to the official list of World’s Top 100 Group 1 Races, has attracted a top-class field that includes not only the past three winners, Hong Kong’s Designs On Rome (2014), Blazing Speed (2015) and Military Attack (2013), but also Japanese stars Lovely Day, Nuovo Record and Satono Crown, as well as Ireland’s globe-trotting G1 winner Highland Reel and Australia’s top-class mare Rising Romance.
“There’s nowhere to run and hide in this race, it’s a proper Group 1 event and it’s a tough field, make no mistake,” said Whyte. “A good draw is certainly going to help Ertijaal as well as other runners’ causes. I believe he is up to the standard. The Japanese horses are coming with some very strong form, you’ve also got the Derby winner, Werther; Highland Reel won the Vase and he is a very good horse; Designs On Rome has done everything right after his surgery, so there are a lot of horses with chances and a lot is going to boil down to barriers and luck in running.”
As to how Ertijaal has taken to his new surroundings, Whyte has no qualms.
“The staff said he’s very uncomplicated and he’s a super horse to travel with,” he said. “He’s by no means a horse that worries about anything, he hasn’t lost any weight, he’s settled in well, he’s eating, his work this morning was nice, so he’s a healthy horse and we’re hoping he can maintain that form and produce a good run on Sunday.”
Photo: Douglas Whyte on Ertijaal in work, Sha-Tin.