Pakistan Star is a racehorse for our time. No other galloper has captured the imagination of Hong Kong racegoers quite like the Tony Cruz-trained gelding that became a social media sensation on the back of his breathtaking last-to-first debut victory at Sha Tin racecourse last July.
On Sunday, Pakistan Star gets the chance to make good on his internet cult hero status when he steps out as one of the fancied runners in the biggest domestic race on the calendar, the HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) Hong Kong Derby (2,000 metres).
Just hours after that astonishing win in a restricted event for griffins (two and three year olds) at the tail end of last season, social media platforms were abuzz with predictions of equine immortality for the German-bred galloper. When he won his seasonal reappearance in Class 3 last September in similarly blistering fashion, the hype went into overdrive.
Eyeing a marketing opportunity, the Hong Kong Jockey Club even produced a Pakistan Star plush toy – they sold out within hours of hitting the shelves. There were also Pakistan Star badges, key rings and pillows on offer in the Jockey Club memorabilia shops and even a tissue box holder in another plush toy likeness of the horse.
In the aftermath of that second success, a somewhat bemused Tony Cruz sought to temper expectations by telling anyone who would listen that Pakistan Star was still very much a work in progress. The champion trainer publicly pleaded with the handicapper not to “crucify” his charge. Predictably enough, those pleas fell on deaf ears. Pakistan Star was lifted 16 points for his debut win and the handicapper added another 14 points to his rating for the follow-up victory. The two-race rise was greater than even Cruz’s former world champion Silent Witness, who was lifted 28 points under then handicapper Ciaran Kennelly for his first two starts 14 years ago, on his way to winning his first 17 races.
Cruz’s concern that it was all too much too soon for his stable star seemed justified when Pakistan Star was beaten as a long odds-on favourite at his next three assignments in Class 2 company. But the hysteria ramped up again when the horse returned to winning ways with a facile success in last December’s Griffin Trophy.
For owner Kerm Din, Sunday’s Derby has always been the main mission for Pakistan Star. And the rags-to-riches businessman says he is by far the most special horse he has owned. Many gallopers have carried those now-famous green and white silks in Hong Kong over the past 25 years – all of them named with the “Pakistan” prefix in honour of the country of Din’s birth – but none have shone as brightly as Pakistan Star.
Interestingly, when Din first laid eyes on the horse he rated him a “two or three out of 10.” He must have spotted something special in the animal, however, as he handed over HK$6 million for the precocious son of Shamardal at the 2016 Hong Kong International Sale.
If Pakistan Star can lift Sunday’s coveted Derby, Din will be justified in reassessing that rating to a perfect 10.