Russian Emperor gives Galileo a last waltz in Hong Kong

Galileo’s status as a super sire is of little consequence in the east Asian city where his reputation has been that of a stallion that imparts too little speed and is one to avoid.

Hong Kong's Russian Emperor wins the G1 H.H. The Amir Trophy in Qatar. (Photo by QREC)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Russian Emperor’s victory in Qatar on Saturday brought a long-overdue big-race win for a Hong Kong-trained horse overseas, the first since Southern Legend bagged the Kranji Mile almost four years ago. But the gelding’s success also represents something of a last Hong Kong dance for Europe’s late, great, super sire Galileo who passed away in 2021.

The G1 Amir Trophy success in Qatar follows two Group 1 wins at Sha Tin last year for Russian Emperor, making him far and away his sire’s best son trained in Hong Kong. Galileo himself has been a wallflower on the Hong Kong domestic scene, to the extent that he was long since tarred as a flop there by most owners, in whose minds there are ‘Hong Kong stallions’ and those that are not.

It is, perhaps, ludicrous to brand a phenomenal producer like Galileo a failure, given his dozen champion sire titles and a long list of individual stakes winners – a sire of champions and a sire of sires – but in Hong Kong terms, he just didn’t fit. Galileo was a long way distant in the desirable stakes behind comparatively middling stallions like the New Zealand sires Pins and O’Reilly, and the unfashionable-in-Europe Holy Roman Emperor.  

Despite that reputation around Sha Tin, Douglas Whyte has not been put off. His stable is home to three of Galileo’s four sons currently racing in Hong Kong: Russian Emperor, S J Tourbillon and Ivy League. His readiness to look beyond the great sire’s perceived limitations, in a Hong Kong context, has found reward in Russian Emperor.


The late great Galileo. (Photo by Coolmore)

Douglas Whyte with S J Tourbillon. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

“Normally you look at the sire and it does put you off but this horse did everything right,” Whyte told Asian Racing Report. “I did take a bit of a gamble because those Europeans, especially the Galileos, like some cut, but I just liked the form around him, it was the way that he did it, I liked him as a horse, that’s how it all eventuated. I saw him and I liked what he was doing.”

In the case of Hong Kong, Galileo’s reputation has been shaped by the market’s demands, and framed by the perception that he bestows too much stamina, or, more pertinently, a lack of speed, for a jurisdiction so speed slanted. Whyte, though, has shown that the Hong Kong way can actually be a positive for a horse like Russian Emperor.

“It’s a unique environment and we tend to inject some speed into them,” he said. “In Europe they look more dour but his racing style has changed, he has proven he can come from pretty much anywhere, as long as the speed’s on and he gets a good trip, he’s got a good turn of foot.”

Hong Kong’s bloodstock interest is all about trading horses – Whyte uses a network of contacts including a handful of agents – there is no breeding industry so the racing ecosystem relies on the business of owners, trainers, and agents scouring the major markets internationally to source horses deemed suitable prospects for a circuit that is weighted heavily towards sprinters and milers. 

There are few opportunities for horses seeking 2000 metres or further: Hong Kong has only three races at 2400 metres and none beyond. 

If you’re an owner aiming to buy, the truth is, you’re more likely looking to the southern hemisphere and a gelding by a speed stallion like Deep Field or Sweynesse these days, or Encosta De Lago back in the day. The only owners going anywhere near a horse by a European classic-producing sire from a potent stallion line, like Galileo, would be those with a PP permit looking to find a horse for the Hong Kong Derby, a slightly anomalous entity in being a domestic championship over 2000 metres.

Sweynesse, sire of Hong Kong's newest star sprinter Lucky Sweynesse, winning at Rosehill in 2014. (Photo by Daniel Munoz/Getty Images)

“It depends on the owner and their patience,” Whyte continued. “If you’re expecting a horse to come into Hong Kong and be winning within his first two starts, well then I wouldn’t be buying a Galileo because they do need time to adjust, they do need time to furnish and acclimatise, and if you’re willing to afford them that time, they’re real tough individuals and you’ll get the benefit of the patience.

“It’s usually all about come in, get racing soon after, and Derby, Derby, Derby; I was very fortunate with my owners because I was able to give Russian Emperor a slow preparation and good education and he came good.”

The basic statistics back up the idea that Galileo’s progeny have been sub-par in Hong Kong. Of the 37 Galileos to have raced there, 14 have won a combined 29 races from 426 starts; the win strike rate of his offspring comes in at a modest 6.8 percent.

But those basic numbers do not give the full picture.

Galileo’s stock fall into two categories when it comes to Hong Kong: those imported to be trained and raced full-time in the jurisdiction; and those high-class overseas-trained gallopers flown in and out of Hong Kong to participate in its lucrative international Group 1 races.

The former category, the 19 imported Galileos that were trained full-time in Hong Kong, have contested 402 races for a total of 25 wins at a runs-to-wins strike rate of only six percent. That holds with the ‘flop’ narrative.

However, the other category includes some big-time gallopers, notably the Aidan O’Brien-trained G1 Hong Kong Vase winners Highland Reel and Mogul; then there are the Sha Tin Group 1 place-getters, Purple Moon, Magic Wand and Magical.

Galileo entire Highland Reel ahead of his G1 Hong Kong Vase win in 2017. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

Those Galileo-sired fly-ins number 18 in total, for three wins (all at 2400 metres) at a wins-to-runs strike rate of a far more respectable 13 percent.

Despite the small sample, that compares favourably to the so-called ‘Hong Kong stallions’: Holy Roman Emperors’ stock have garnered 155 wins at a nine percent strike rate; Pins struck at ten percent; Starspangledbanner is striking at 12 percent, Deep Field 11 percent and Per Incanto ten percent.

What owners buy is determined by what the market offers and at what price. They are looking for a horse that fits a profile, an athletic type, able to handle fast ground, speed in the pedigree, available within their value bracket, and, significantly, without commercial value as a stallion: the best of Galileo’s sons have always been beyond their reach.

To put it plainly, when Hong Kong owners went looking for a Hong Kong Derby prospect and came upon a Galileo for sale, they were not picking from, for example, the Ballydoyle first string. They were picking from the next bracket down, or getting the horses that had shown their flaws – be that in their ability or their physical make-up – and were surplus to the business of breeding.

There is no point in forking out extra for a colt with stallion potential when there is no domestic breeding industry. Hong Kong trainers and owners, by and large, will geld their horse, and you don’t go paying future-stallion prices for the most promising sons of an exceptional stallion line, only to then geld them so that they’re easier to train in the tough Hong Kong environment. Russian Emperor, it should be noted, is out of Atlantic Jewel, a champion race mare, but their is no sentiment in that regard: he was bought to race, nothing more.

Russian Emperor wins the G1 Champions and Chater Cup. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Galileo is in a similar boat to Redoute’s Choice, another star stallion that owners went cold on. Trends are followed, so when owners buy hardy athletes that show the necessary speed, albeit they might be by a solid second tier or broadly unfashionable stallion, like Not A Single Doubt or Holy Roman Emperor, they stick with what they find has worked at a price that works.

It was a case of it being seen as better to buy the best athletic son of Pins on the market than, for a similar price or more, buy a Galileo from down the pecking order.

Galileo’s time has all but passed with his final offspring being yearlings this year. There is time for one of his sons to make a mark in Hong Kong, but again, the markets will dictate. Frankel made a good start with the Group 3-winning PP Simply Brilliant but now that he is the boom sire in Europe and beyond, perhaps he too will, in time, experience the same phenomenon as his own sire.




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