At this time of year the spotlight is, properly, on mudsplattered geldings thrilling us with their exploits over obstacles. They are, in the words of Will Ogilvie in his poem about steeplechasers, the "limber lean-of-head ones; hardy, hefty humble-bred ones".
But to paraphase Ogilvie, Danehill's sons and Sadler's daughters are no longer tucked away in winter quarters. And on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong via New York and Tokyo, the best of the former is ready for his last hurrah.
Though Dylan Thomas left the European scene nearly nine weeks ago, he still has a task to complete before heading for the delights of his next career as a stallion at Coolmore Stud. On Sunday he takes part in the Hong Kong Vase, one of four international Group 1 contests offering a total prize money of some 4m. The four-year-old's presence in the former colony is seemingly not just an afterthought, but an afterthought's afterthought. After getting bogged down in the Monmouth Park mud after his Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe win he was surprisingly directed to and then prevented from running in by veterinary red tape the Japan Cup, a race which would not have enhanced his already huge stud value by one iota. Nor would success on Sunday, which would top up his earnings by a mere 500,000.
But should he prevail, it would emphasise just how remarkably tough he is and provide Aidan O'Brien with considerable job satisfaction. The colt's season began in April and has included eight top-level races in four countries, of which he has won four and finished second in three.
Yesterday morning Dylan Thomas, favourite for the 12-furlong Vase, impressed work-watchers, and his trainer, as he bounded enthusiastically through his final serious spin, recording a final two-furlong split of 23.4 seconds on the turf course at Sha Tin.
"He is amazing," said O'Brien. "I don't think any other horse but him would have got this far. We know just how good he is on his good days and he seems in fine form, but he has had a long, hard season. But on the other hand he is a typical son of Danehill, getting bigger and stronger, and he has this great will to win. You can never be over-confident in a situation like this, but we are hopeful. But whatever happens, he doesn't owe anybody anything."
Dylan Thomas should have his favoured fast ground on Sunday, when his rivals in the race won in the past three years by British challengers Phoenix Reach, Ouija Board and Collier Hill, will include Brian Meehan's Red Rocks, third in the Breeders' Cup Turf. O'Brien will run Excellent Art, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Mile, in the Hong Kong Mile, also the target of top French filly Darjina and Peter Chapple-Hyam's charge Al Quasi.
European hopes in the Hong Kong Sprint centre on the first and third in the Prix de l'Abbaye, Benbaun from Mark Wallace's yard and Desert Lord, trained by Kevin Ryan. But the pair will have to cope with Australian mare Miss Andretti, who had them behind her in the King's Stand Stakes and showed her well-being with a Group 1 win at Flemington three weeks ago.
The most prestigious of Sunday's races, though, is the Cup, won last year by Arc runner-up Pride. The local champion Viva Pataca, who began life here as nursery winner Comic Strip, has thrived since heading east and is looking for his sixth top-level success. His chief opposition should be perennial rival Vengeance Of Rain and a new one in Godolphin's Ramonti, stepping up to 10 furlongs.
Back among the seasonal performers, the retirement of one of the most beloved has been announced. Spot Thedifference's emotional seventh win round Cheltenham's unique cross-country course last month has proved to be his swan-song.
J P McManus's 14-year-old slipped and fell while pulling up under JT Mcnamara, and the cheers when he rose to his feet behind the dread screens matched the victory ovation. His connections will not tempt fate again. "Grown-up people were crying that day in Cheltenham," said trainer Enda Bolger. "We decided to end on that high note."
Such is the celebrity of the bay gelding, who raced 51 times for 14 wins in all, that fan mail addressed merely to 'Spot Thedifference, Ireland' finds its way to his box at Bolger's yard in Bruree, Co Limerick. The horse will remain there, before a celebrity appearance at the Festival in March, and then join Istabraq at McManus's Martinstown Stud.
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