“Last year he used to take a lot of himself and I knew I needed to be patient,” recalls de Watrigant. “I told Terry Henderson to be patient and that he would make a proper four-year-old. Everyone was asking me whether there was a problem with the horse. But I had decided on that course of action some time before and I didn't want to change my mind. And we had already decided to prepare him for Australia and the Cox Plate by the end of the year.”
The story of 2015's highs and lows for Gailo Chop and de Watrigant would fill a novel. For the trainer, the thrill of landing a first Group 1 when his stable star won the MacKinnon Stakes at Flemington last month has to be balanced having his numbers slashed to 12 when owner/breeder Alain Chopard took nearly 20 horses (along with most of the staff) to train them himself.
And for Gailo Chop himself there was that stirring fightback under Ben Melham, having looked likely to get swamped. But also the memory of a complete no-show in the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot on a day when de Watrigant was sure he had the horse in “the form of his life.”
The win got plenty of coverage in Australia, not least for the onscreen reaction of part-owner Francesca Cumani and her co-commentator and OTI Mangement co-founder Simon O'Donnell.
Having already found himself frusttrated with the efforts of Brad Rawiller in the Cox Plate, De Watrigant began to fear the worst when Ben Melham took the race by the scruff of the neck in the Mackinnon. But the young riding sensation knew what he wanted to do and the “Guerrieur (Warrior) Gailo" fought back in dramatic fashion.
“At the entrance to the back straight he was going pretty quick and I said to myself 'ouf' but, he is a very strong horse. It's more than just courage, he just fears nothing. Whatever happens, he breathes, he go again. For another horse to get passed like him, it would be too hard. But he retook them and he went on again well past the post.”
Australian-based OTI have always placed plenty of faith in their trainers and there is no particular pressure to pick Australian targets for next southern hemisphere spring. But de Watrigant has already eaerned a taste for the Antipodes.
“He has shown that he handles the travelling,” says de Watrigant. “He is extraordinary. When he landed in Australia after quarantine and then three days of travelling, he had only lost 12kg.
I've had horse lose twice that going from Mont de Marsan up to Paris. It only took him two days to get the weight back on.
“I felt that in time, it showed he might get further. Perhaps next year we might take in one race before – perhaps the Cox Plate – and then, as he seems to be getting easier on himself with age, why not the Melbourne Cup. It's a race you need good starting speed and then to sustain your effort in the closing stages. He has both, we just need to find another 800 metres !
Free Eagle re-match
Gailo Chop has already faced Longines Hong Kong Cup favourite Free Eagle this season and came off much the worse when trailing home a distant eighth.
De Watrigant says: “You have to forget his run at Ascot when he just didn't breathe well and was unable to respond. I have never had him in such good shape as that day, he was in the form of his life. But he just didn't run his race. John Gosden's horse [Western Hymn] finished third at Ascot and we beat him by 18 lengths in the Guillaume d'Ornano. We had every right to be fourth but not eighth.
Free Eagle is a very good horse but perhaps he is fragile. I know my horse is strong and we will finish a lot closer this time."
Straight after Thursday's draw ceremony de Watrigant tells me he is happy enough with a middle draw in seven, a number he tells me is “a biblical number which brings good luck.”
Gailo Chop has kept the work watchers and photographers entertained at Sha Tin, putting in more meaningful metres than many. What would it mean if it all paid off on Sunday?
The trainer says... “If he runs in the first three it will be great and it is a big plus having Christophe Soumillon. What he has done in Australia is already fantastic and a top three would be the cerise sur le gateau. If he wins then well...”
Don't worry Antoine. If Gailo Chop returns to the number one spot after the Cup, my bet is you won't be lost for words.
I've had horses lose twice that going up to Paris from Mont de Marsan
Highlight of the day so far ? One of Cantopop's biggest stars, Miriam Yeung