What Have We Learned From Success Story?

Success Story brought the Korean adventure at the Dubai World Cup Carnival to a successful conclusion with a rousing run behind California Chrome last week. A second front-running performance and gutsy finish under another flawless Tadhg O’Shea ride, meant he landed back to back 3rd place finishes, this time in one of the most widely watched races of the Carnival so far.

The decision to run in that race was not without risk. Although Success Story had won at 2000M before, he is considered to be much better at shorter distances and accordingly was also entered for a 1400M race the same night. However, with California Chrome scaring off a number of potential rivals and jockey  O’Shea expressing confidence in the horse getting the trip and being competitive, the decision was made to take a chance at the greater distance. And it was a decision that paid dividends with Success Story’s front-running and then gutsy rally to get up for 3rd place earning him plenty of praise. Of course, California Chrome was much better – he finished four lengths ahead of Success Story but it could have been forty had Victor Espinoza been so inclined – putting in a performance judged to be the best in the world last week.

The wider significance is that for the second time, Success Story looked like he belonged in the race. It’s true that just as when finishing 3rd of 14 last month, he was racing against horses, Chrome aside, who are no more than solid handicappers but until last week, not many would have thought a Korean bred and trained horse could cope with even that level, let alone beat the majority of his competitors. He vindicated the decision of the Dubai handicappers to invite Korean horses and has ensured that a return trip next year – either for him or for others from here – is very much a possibility.

Success Story took to Dubai very well. He reportedly enjoyed the stables, the routine of the lengthy walk to and from trackwork each day  and the dirt track itself, as well as the general environment. At the races, he looked so much better than he generally does in Korea, having been turned out beautifully. He looked like a racehorse. His groom led him up in a shirt and bow-tie and his connections – it seemed as though the whole family was there – were dressed up as if for Royal Ascot.

In Korea, the grooms tend to wear Union issued t-shirts to the parade ring; except for big Stakes races, 90% of trainers don’t wear anything different to races than they would wear around the barn and owners rarely leave their lounge (although Busan is generally much better than Seoul in this regard, especially when their horses visit the capital). Owners will from April be permitted to have their horses run in their own colours rather than those of the jockey. With the current drive by the KRA to reboot the image of racing in this country, it would be very welcome if this was accompanied by a little more sophistication in the raceday experience.

The most important thing of course is that he ran well, exceeding the expectations of the most optimistic observers. O’ Shea deserves great credit for extracting the very maximum out of him on both occasions but he was well trained and well entered too. Mainstream Korean news outlets carried reports on the two races while the California Chrome factor ensured Success Story was mentioned in global coverage of Thursday’s race.

Success Story wasn’t the only Korean-trained horse at the Carnival. Sprinter Cheongu was actually considered the more likely of the two to be competitive. His best run prior to Dubai was a 3rd place behind Choegang Schiller and El Padrino in the Asia Challenge Cup in Seoul last August and the knowledge that he would travel fine, having previously taken trips to Singapore and Japan in his stride, meant one less thing to worry about. It was not to be. On opening night, he missed the break and then lost a plate. In such circumstances, running 5th of 8 was creditable but a lackluster performance last Thursday was less easy to explain away. He’s done his bit over the past few months but this time, he just didn’t run very well.

Seven and a half years ago, I wrote an article called  “What have we learned from Pick Me Up?” The answer then and for several subsequent years was “not a lot”. Pick Me Up was the first horse to go on what was a well-intentioned but ultimately counter-productive initiative to let Korean-bred horses race in the United States. It inadvertently became an incentive to ship horses that may otherwise have been spelled, to an unfamiliar trainer to participate uncompetitively in three races for which a subsidy was provided. Essentially, the wrong horses went to the wrong races at the wrong time and it was still continuing up until last year.

By contrast, the interactions with Japan, Singapore and now Dubai are much more positive. With connections being invited to target a particular race, the trainer is still responsible for training the horse, the grooms go with the horse and everybody involved is invested in the trip being successful. So “What Have We Learned from Success Story?”, the answer now might still be “Not a lot just yet” but with the caveat of “Watch this space…” The prospect of more nights like  last Thursday are a huge incentive to keep trying.

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