Hot King Prawn will never get a better chance to capture that elusive Group One win than in Sunday’s Centenary Sprint Cup at Sha Tin.
Few horses have been as consistent at the top level as John Size’s grey but it doesn’t change the reality that one thing is missing from his resume.
It seemed a fait accompli Hot King Prawn would reach racing’s pinnacle after winning 10 of his first 11 runs and he started a $2.10 favourite in the 2018 Hong Kong Sprint at start 12.
After bouncing straight to the lead early in the race, he got a flat tyre in the final 150m and dropped out to finish ninth. It happens, Group Ones are meant to be hard.
But given he’d just turned four and with the champion trainer leading the way, it was only going to be a matter of time – at least that’s how it felt from the outside.
That trajectory was altered on February 4, 2019 when Hot King Prawn was lying in an operating theatre with a life-threatening colic issue. Thankfully, Jockey Club surgeon Paul Robinson solved the problem quickly and Size’s staff helped nurse him back to health.
Hot King Prawn spent more than four months recovering before slowly starting to build back up with trotting and swimming before making his racetrack return with a second in the Group Two Jockey Club Sprint in November 2019.
It’s impossible to measure the impact of the surgery – some believe a horse’s mindset can be
significantly affected following an invasive procedure – but it obviously didn’t help.
Despite the incident, Hot King Prawn has continued to race exceptionally well.
In the 11 starts since, he’s never finished more than two and a half lengths off the winner when racing exclusively in Class One or Group events. But when he’s been at the elite level, he’s found one or two too good on the day.
The horses he placed around last season – the likes of Mr Stunning, Beat The Clock, Aethero and Thanks Forever – have either retired or been severely affected by injury.
If they were taking part in the Centenary Sprint Cup anywhere near their peak, they’d be very short in the market.
But there are no superstars in Hong Kong’s sprinting ranks right now, just an even batch of solid but unspectacular gallopers. That can be seen clearly in the 11-horse field.
According to the ratings – both international and domestic – Hot King Prawn should win this race, at set weights, comfortably.
Hot King Prawn has carried a domestic rating of at least 125 for more than two years and there are only three horses – Golden Sixty (131), Exultant (128) and Rise High (127) – above him right now.
In this race, he is seven points clear of Wishful Thinker (119) and nine in front of Voyage Warrior (117), with the rest even further in arrears.
In terms of international ratings, Hot King Prawn has a mark of 120, five more than Voyage Warrior and seven ahead of Jolly Banner and Wishful Thinker. But that is all subjective – races aren’t run on paper.
The clearest stat that shows Hot King Prawn’s class edge is his record in Group One races.
He’s had six starts at the top level for three placings. The other 10 runners on Sunday combine for one placing from 18 starts – Jolly Banner’s second in last month’s Hong Kong Sprint.
When it comes to Group Two wins, Hot King Prawn has had three of them, the rest of the field combine has two – Voyage Warrior’s success in last season’s Sprint Cup and Wishful Thinker’s shock victory in October’s Premier Bowl.
Anecdotally, this is the worst Group One sprint in Hong Kong this century in terms of quality.
There are no internationals to help bolster it, but after Danon Smash’s win in December’s Hong Kong Sprint, you would imagine they will be back for the Chairman’s Sprint Prize in April.
There is no doubt this is a period of transition for Hong Kong racing, particularly for 1,200m horses – which has historically been a strength.
Of the 1,350-plus horses in the jurisdiction, only six have won Group Ones in the city. A lot of top-level talent has retired recently and the fresh blood – horses like Winning Dreamer – haven’t taken their place just yet.
Taking into account the broader circumstances, plus the specifics of Sunday – superstar jockey Joao Moreira taking the ride from barrier two – everything seems to be in Hot King Prawn’s favour. He’s beaten all of his rivals before.
It’s been a roller-coaster journey for fans of the popular grey – and everything since the colic scare should be considered a bonus – but if he’s ever going to break through and capture a Group One, the Centenary Sprint Cup is it.