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Clash of the titans: Teetan’s the man for Romantic Warrior

Golden Sixty will attempt to put California Spangle back in his place in Sunday’s Stewards’ Cup but the star milers must face Romantic Warrior in the biggest clash Hong Kong racing has seen in years, and Karis Teetan has a prime seat.

Romantic Warrior gets a hug from Karis Teetan after his victory in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

It’s been a good while since Hong Kong has had a real deal championship showdown but on Sunday afternoon that’s exactly what the Sha Tin crowd is going to get. It won’t be a simple head-to-head either, this clash has three stars colliding in a contest that will determine who carries forward the champion’s badge.

“It’s going to be a great race,” Karis Teetan told Asian Racing Report, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in disagreement. “A lot of people are talking about it; we’ve got the best three horses in Hong Kong taking each other on, three very good horses, and that’s something that hasn’t happened for a long time.

“It’s definitely like the old days when we used to look forward to those big horses clashing and that’s what it feels like again with these three.”

Teetan prompts memories of Silent Witness and Bullish Luck, Viva Pataca and Vengeance Of Rain, Ambitious Dragon and Glorious Days.

But, as big clashes go, this one might yet beat them all, even the fabled Able Friend versus Designs On Rome face-off in the 2014 Derby, for it is all that and more in its make-up: this race isn’t just confined to two four-year-olds vying for generational honours on the way to greater things.

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Designs On Rome defeats Able Friend in a dramatic Hong Kong Derby. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

The G1 Stewards’ Cup of 2023 is an all-age clash, Golden Sixty versus California Spangle versus Romantic Warrior: an all-time great versus the exciting young miler that floored him, versus the horse that could be the next great thing.

Besides, Romantic Warrior and California Spangle have already ‘worn’ that four-year-old head-to-head ‘T-shirt’: they carved up last year’s classic series, ending with a Derby epic when only a head separated them.    

Teetan, for so long a second string pick when big races came along, partnered Romantic Warrior to win the Classic Mile, Derby and G1 QEII Cup last term and there is excitement in his voice as he speaks about the horse: not a nervous exhilaration, but a mature anticipation of the contest’s intensity, wrapped in the hope that it will end in a rush of peak elation felt only ever by those few jockeys blessed enough to ride a champion in such a race.  

“It’s like with fighters: who is performing to their best, is the old guy still at his peak, is the younger one coming to get him? It’s like that with these horses,” he said. “You know, Golden Sixty, he’s a freak, he’s a champion but you have to say he is getting a bit older, and these two younger horses are coming up.”

Golden Sixty famously lit up the Covid days, during which time top-class gallopers were thin on the ground at Sha Tin. Francis Lui’s charge achieved world class performances, nonetheless, and rolled through a 16-race unbeaten streak under Vincent Ho. The seven-year-old had pocketed another three wins on the bounce when the Tony Cruz-trained California Spangle – last year’s Classic Cup hero – stepped up in December and floored his attempt to seal a G1 Hong Kong Mile hat-trick, thanks in part to the wily race-craft of his pilot, Zac Purton.

“You look at California Spangle and you just can’t ignore what he has done, he’s just a superstar and it’s going to be a great race,” Teetan continued. “But my horse is freakish as well, because what he did in the Hong Kong Cup last month was unbelievable and his preparation has gone really well.”

Teetan, of course, was not holding the reins when Romantic Warrior won the Cup so easily, that was Sydney’s champion James McDonald, who took the hot seat for two races while Teetan recovered from a thyroid problem that grounded him for three months.

The Mauritian now taking back the reins from his esteemed stand-in is a reversal of past scenarios and speaks to the status Teetan has after almost a decade in the city. Back in the days of Able Friend and Designs On Rome, he was the understudy; filling in for Joao Moreira when Able Friend blitzed home in the Premier Bowl, and a handful of times on Designs On Rome for Moreira or Tommy Berry, including for a Sha Tin Trophy success.    

And then there was Mr Stunning. Teetan rode the sprinter in his early days, lost the ride to Moreira and Rawiller, got back on and won the G1 Hong Kong Sprint, was replaced by Zac Purton and Hugh Bowman, then regained the ride and won the 2020 Chairman’s Sprint Prize at the gelding’s final start.

Karis Teetan and Mr Stunning take out the G1 Chairman's Sprint Prize. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Teetan’s positive approach, his willingness to accept such blows and come out smiling – understanding the system at work, in fact – has helped him reach the place he is at. He has been third best in the premiership behind the long-dominant two, Moreira and Purton, for a number of years and now, in the post-Moreira era, he is being seen not just as a big race rider but as a rider befitting a star horse in those big races.

“You know, it wasn’t easy to let go and see other guys winning races on those horses,” he admitted. “But at this time, to be able to know and ride a horse like Romantic Warrior and get back on him, after what he did in the Cup, that only gives me increased confidence in myself.”

Romantic Warrior’s trainer Danny Shum Chap-shing and owner Peter Lau Pak-fai have held to their word in putting Teetan up despite McDonald going two from two on the Irish-bred. The Mauritian is, after all, three from four on Romantic Warrior, having picked up the ride in last year’s Classic Mile from Moreira, who got off the horse after four wins to ride a relative no-hoper for his chief ally at the time, John Size.

Teetan has made the most of that break falling his way and has an air of healthy, calm assurance as he goes towards Sunday’s test. He rode Romantic Warrior in a 1000-metre barrier trial two weeks ago when the gelding cruised through the line in front, and he has ridden him in trackwork ten times since then.

“For a horse that goes over 2000 metres, he has so much natural speed; it does change things a bit being at the mile but he’s such a good horse that he’s able to cope with whatever is thrown at him, he has those attributes you would want in a top-class miler,” he said.

And that adds an extra layer to the race. Romantic Warrior’s last four starts, all wins, have been at 2000 metres, a distance at which he looks supreme.

Romantic Warrior demolished his international rivals in the 2000 metre Hong Kong Cup. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

Golden Sixty ranges up to California Spangle in the G2 Jockey Club Mile. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

 The Stewards’ Cup will be his first time at 1600 metres since his Classic Mile win a year ago: he is taking on Golden Sixty and California Spangle at their pet distance.

“Looking at my horse, the way he runs, the way he trialled two weeks ago…” Teetan said, letting his sentence trail off tellingly. 

All three horses will go into the race with connections believing in their respective horses but when it comes to Teetan, there is a growing belief in him after years of working to improve and prove his merit. 

“After being in Hong Kong for so many years, I’m just happy the way things are rolling now,” he said. “I missed out on a big day with Romantic Warrior but I’m back on and I’m looking forward to the future. It’s a small field on Sunday but it’s going to have people watching all over the world, I think.” 

How Romantic Warrior fares could well determine not only which horse is the current kingpin, but also whether Teetan’s future sees him become a jockey recognised more widely beyond Hong Kong’s borders and entrusted with big race rides more freely within.   

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