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After 50 years in Hong Kong racing, Tony Cruz is still winning in his own inimitable way and his Hong Kong Mile hero California Spangle might be just the horse to put the living legend back on the world stage where he belongs.
Tony Cruz is holding court at the window seat overlooking Sha Tin Racecourse on the second floor of the HKJC Clubhouse, his fourth Hong Kong Mile trophy is on the table and he is shooting from the hip.
“You know after the lead-up race, the minute Zac (Purton) got off the horse, he said we will definitely beat Golden Sixty next time,” Cruz says. “I said back to him, ‘Yeah? You were meant to kick his ass this time, not next time!’ Anyway, here we are, next time was yesterday, we did it and I am overjoyed.”
There’s nothing quite like Cruz in conversation – the positivity, the stories of races won the world over and random observations on the sport – but it is particularly fun when he has his tail up like this. The words flow fast and direct, and just like he rode, he enjoys setting the pace.
We have picked an afternoon when Cruz is sure to be in fine form too; a day earlier California Spangle produced one of the famous upsets in Hong Kong racing history by denying Golden Sixty a third straight Mile, turning around the result from the aforementioned G2 Jockey Club Mile.
“This horse, California Spangle, he is a brilliant miler and I have some ideas about heading overseas with him, because he seems to handle anything,” Cruz offers, unprompted.
Number one option for Cruz is the Yasuda Kinen in early June at Tokyo. Cruz was the last Sha Tin-based trainer to win the race, with Bullish Luck 17 years ago, but since then Hong Kong horses are on a zero from 23 cold streak against the might of Japan’s best milers, and four of Cruz’s runners were among them.
“It’s a tough race, the only issue California Spangle might have there is that long and uphill Tokyo straight, it’s a difficult race to win for a leader like my horse,” he says. “I don’t want him further than a mile anymore, so that rules out the Dubai Turf.”
Would Cruz entertain the idea of an Everest slot, if it was offered, back at 1200m? His eyebrows raise when the AU$15 million purse is mentioned, “As I said, I think a mile is his best trip, but it’s all up to the owners. We have a great relationship with the Liang family.”
Cruz’s association with the Liangs stretches back decades to Cruz’s illustrious riding career that began in 1972, ended with six Hong Kong championships and was peppered with famous triumphs across Europe as well.
“I was flown over to Newmarket to ride for them when I was with Wong Tang-ping, and when I started training they supported me,” he says. “Now another generation of the family is involved, it makes having California Spangle perform like he has very special.”
When Cruz is rolling like this it is entertaining to ask him a question that you already know the answer to, just to hear the way he answers, so we set one up on the tee for him to smash out of the park.
Question:“You are considered one of Hong Kong’s greatest-ever jockeys, but when you set out to be a trainer, did you think you would one day be considered one of its greatest-ever trainers?”
“Honestly?” he asks, leaning in, a grin spreading across his face. “You know, I always had that in mind,” before breaking into a laugh.
“But seriously, I always wanted that, I’m here for a reason you know. I am here to win, man, it’s not to make up the numbers.”
Cruz’s impressive results as a jockey more than match the burning ambition that propelled him into a second career, as a trainer, in 1996, and his already overflowing trophy cabinet keeps collecting more metal. Cruz had already won more HKIR features than any other trainer before Sunday’s success. He now has 11 International day G1s, and is the only trainer to have ridden a HKIR winner as well.
The first round roll call of Hong Kong champions he has trained includes Silent Witness, Bullish Luck, California Memory, Exultant, Time Warp and Pakistan Star.
Another soft ball question sure to elicit a trademark response is to remind Cruz that three riders have more career wins than him – Douglas Whyte, Purton and Joao Moreira – and that John Moore has him covered as a trainer.
“Yeah sure, but I have won more races than all of them though,” he says, referring to his combined 2,380 wins, and counting, as a jockey and trainer.
Of Hong Kong’s reigning champion rider and California Spangle’s tactical mastermind Purton, Cruz is full of admiration, particularly for the Australian’s off-track self-management. “When he commits to a horse, he commits to a horse,” Cruz says. “He will promise you what date he will ride a horse and he will ride it, he is very reliable like that.”
It leaves the obvious comparison hanging for a moment, before adding. “Moreira, not so much. He might have just put you on hold. He might just check when the entries come up, at his peak he has seven or eight rides he could pick, but Zac wasn’t like that.
“On track I love the way Zac rides though, very confident, cool, when he comes from behind on a horse he rides it very patiently and quietly, but he finishes strong.”
As a trainer, Cruz is finishing ‘strong’ as well; as of Wednesday he was equal top of the 2022-23 standings with 21 wins. The end of his career is not as imminent as it seemed a few years ago; it would be his final season now if not for changes to Jockey Club rules that mean that the 65-year-old can now train past 70. That creates the possibility that he passes John Moore, and pulls clear of John Size, then retires as the winning-most trainer in Hong Kong history.
“As long as you are performing, I think you should be able to go for as long as you want,” he says. “But you know, when I reach 70, let’s see what happens, I may not want to go on anymore. Maybe 70 is enough, and I should go out on top.”
Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, Cruz looks like he has at least five great seasons left in him. He boasts the lithe frame if not the physique of the supremely gifted rider he was – in many eyes the greatest to ever grace the tracks of Hong Kong – and still has a lightweight boxer’s bounce in his step.
His training style is more physically active than most at Sha Tin; buzzing back and forward on his mountain bike between the trainer’s stand, saddling area and stables, he relies on first hand observation and in-person direction.
“I like to get into the box with the horses, I need to feel their legs and get near them before they do anything each day, I know exactly how they feel,” he says. “I know their legs, and how they should be treated.”
As Cruz steps out onto the clubhouse balcony for a photo, he reflects again on California Spangle’s upset win, but true to form, he is already plotting another big race victory. “You know they all wrote us off, the press said we couldn’t beat Golden Sixty, how could we? We were getting five pounds from him last time,” he says. “Zac called it though, and we pulled it off. I’m looking forward to the next time they race too.”
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