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Tony and Bev Millard recount the dramatic tension of ten years ago when their brilliant champion Ambitious Dragon suffered an injury on the eve of what was to be the biggest race of his life.
Tony Millard’s eyes shine and the deep creases at their edges wrinkle tightly as he laughs behind the white face-mask that covers his grin.
“You should see him; he comes and canters up, stands there and stares down over the valley,” he says. “He’s a right tart.”
The trainer straightens his neck, lifting his head to mimic the image of the horse he is recalling in his mind’s eye.
“He’s in New Zealand in a big paddock where he was born. He’s got a good life and he deserves it. He’s a unique horse, one of those that comes along once in a lifetime.”
It is ten years this week since Millard’s horse of a lifetime sparked drama on the eve of the Hong Kong Mile. Back in December 2012, Ambitious Dragon was the star of the Hong Kong scene: before Able Friend and Beauty Generation, before Golden Sixty, ‘The Dragon’ was the horse making a case for greatness.
Ambitious Dragon had won the 2011 Hong Kong Derby and G1 QEII Cup to cap a relentless ascent from Class 4.
In the first half of 2012 he won the first two legs of the Triple Crown – at 1600 metres and 2000 metres – only to fail narrowly at the third and final test that May when second in the Champions & Chater Cup over 2400 metres.
The following autumn, by then a six-year-old, he returned with an emphatic defeat of Glorious Days, conceding 4lb in the G2 Sha Tin Trophy Handicap at a mile, then seemed to run flat when second to that rival, conceding a 5lb penalty, when the 1.8 favourite in the G2 Jockey Club Mile.
But the G1 Hong Kong Mile of 2012 was the big one, the race that would cement his status, and Ambitious Dragon had a point to prove one year on from his failure to win the G1 Hong Kong Cup over 2000 metres, in which he was only fourth as the 2.1 favourite.
There was extra spice, too: Zac Purton was at that time the upstart challenger to the dominant champion Douglas Whyte. The South African, ever the ice cool operator, had uncharacteristically turned back and pointed, grinning, at Purton when he crossed the winning line in the Jockey Club Mile, a sign that Purton had got under Whyte’s skin.
Meanwhile, the Millard stable was preparing Johnson Lam Pui-hung’s brilliant gelding with confidence and the strapping son of Pins was at his peak when disaster struck.
“All the drama, that was amazing: he lost a shoe and sliced his back leg open,” recalls Bev Millard, trainer’s wife, stable lynchpin and Ambitious Dragon’s work rider. That happened on a Thursday, just three days before the race.
“He didn’t have a great pain threshold,” her husband says, “so he was hopping about on three legs. Really, it was pretty minor in the overall scheme of things, but of course, here they’re strict on the trot-ups so it was actually touch and go.”
He didn’t have a great pain threshold, so he was hopping about on three legs.
An uncertain Friday rolled by into what turned out to be an anxious Saturday.
“It blew up on the Saturday morning,” continues Bev. “We went to the lunch for the Hong Kong International Sale and Tony told Mr Lam then. He came back to the stables to see the horse and, you know, he’s not a horse-savvy person, but straight away he turned to Tony and he said, ‘Hey boss, we’ve got a problem.’”
Ambitious Dragon was trotted up for the vet but was clearly lame. The team had a day and a night to get him right to pass the deciding trot-up on the Sunday morning, race day, or be scratched.
“I think the only thing that kept him in the race at that point was that there were no reserves otherwise they would have scratched him on the Saturday. It really was touch and go,” Millard says.
There was little in terms of treatments and medications that the South African handler could turn to so close to the race.
“That night, we had a big problem so Tony said ‘we’ve got to go back to old-fashioned veterinary methods,’” recalls Bev. “So, him and our older daughter came in for the staff – we told them to get sleep, they didn’t have to stress anymore – and they just walked the horse, put him back, then walked and walked him through the night; ultimately we had to put him back in the box because the horse had to sleep as well.”
“It was pretty hair-raising,” her husband admits. “The horse was right, he was fit and he was ready, but we needed to get him into the race.”
Next morning, race day, the final trot-up loomed. The staff arrived and gathered as Ambitious Dragon was led out of his box but he was still showing some stiffness in his movement.
“We put him in the walker and brought him back,” says Bev. “Everyone was just standing holding their breath and he trotted out sound after he’d loosened up. I put the saddle on and took him out for a canter, I was riding him all the time then. It was almost like holding my breath the whole time until we got back. He trotted up for the vet and he was 100 per cent. It was one of those where it all went wrong and then corrected itself.”
Purton took the reins on race day for the third consecutive time but Millard had been conscious not to burden the rising star of the jockeys’ room with any more information than was necessary.
“You never want the jockey to be negative, so it’s better he doesn’t know,” Millard laughs.
Purton rode the bay with supreme confidence from a wide gate, settling third-last in the field of 12. Ambitious Dragon swung widest of all into the home straight, nine widths off the rail upon straightening, but he was tanking supremely.
A bump from a rival was shrugged off and ‘The Dragon’ responded to Purton’s urging, quickening brilliantly from two and a half lengths down to swoop past Glorious Days for an ears-pricked three quarters of a length victory. This time, Purton’s finger pointed snarkily at Whyte.
“He just had a turn of speed like the super horse that he was, he could just turn it on; regardless, if he was a little bit too far back it didn’t matter, when he got going, he just had the action and he could pick it up like a proper horse,” Millard says, his eyes narrowing at the memory, his tone one of respect.
“He almost won the Triple Crown from a mile to a mile and a half. That’s what a true champion is, they don’t have a distance, they can run over any distance. They’re just something special.”
Ambitious Dragon was imperious again three months later in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup over 1400 metres but that was his last success as a tendon injury struck after he ran sixth in the QEII Cup. He returned 18 months later and placed third in two prep runs for the 2014 Hong Kong Mile.
“He bruised his foot or had a corn or something and we thought, here we go again. We had the same thing the night before but we couldn’t pull it off twice,” Bev says.
“He was soft like that. If something went wrong, if he got a little cut or something he thought he was dying. That’s the type of horse he was but when it came to the crunch in a race, he had the biggest heart ever.”
Ambitious Dragon was scratched from the Mile in 2014 but had two more races before retiring. After the tendon injury, though, the brilliance was gone and he retired to his birthplace, the Lowry family’s historic Okawa Stud near Napier on the east side of New Zealand’s North Island.
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“He lives out with the young horses,” Bev says of the now 16-year-old. “He’s like a grandfather, he looks after them and keeps them in their place as well.”
As for Ambitious Dragon’s place, it is assured among the all-time greats of Hong Kong racing, and his legacy as a rare champion is in no small part thanks to that Hong Kong Mile win that almost didn’t happen.
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