By David Morgan
Designs On Rome, Hong Kong’s Horse of the Year in 2014 and a four-time Group 1 winner for owner Cheng Keung-fai and trainer John Moore, has retired from racing.
As tough as he was talented, the champion gelding ruled Hong Kong’s middle distance division at his peak, winning the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup, Audemars Piguet QEII Cup, two renewals of the Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup, and, of course, an epic edition of the BMW Hong Kong Derby, all at 2000 metres.
“He will go into folklore as a true champion,” said Moore. “Why, in particular, is the way he had to be ridden; he had to come from so far back and it caused plenty of heart flutters!”
The Holy Roman Emperor gelding’s trademark long run for home, driving wide past rivals on the sweep towards the final straight, was a sight that, on his best days, would raise the Sha Tin crowd from an expectant murmur to a booming crescendo.
“He had to come from way off the speed,” Moore continued. “But the way he always closed and the run he could put in, the sustained run from the 650 (metres) or 700, even the 800 at times, and he kept coming, it really identified him as a horse that was just all heart. He gave everyone some nervous moments though, but that’s what made him exciting – whether it was the trainer or the owner or the public, he really gave us some memories.”
One such memory, and perhaps his finest moment, came in the December, 2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m). Faced with world class opponents, the Irish-bred drew his entire armoury to defeat another Hong Kong champion, his predecessor as Horse of the Year, Military Attack.
Niggled along in last place with 900m to race, by the time the field swung for straightening Designs On Rome was fully in contention, still back in the field but with his sights locked on the quickening Military Attack, his rider that day, Joao Moreira, driving hard.
Designs On Rome and Military Attack advanced together - the latter a shade to the fore - brushing aside Britain’s Farraaj, passing France’s Cirrus Des Aigles, then powering beyond Australia’s Criterion. With the winning post’s shadow upon them, the Cup seemingly destined for Military Attack’s cabinet, Zac Purton’s mount faltered, rolled towards his foe and Designs On Rome lunged to a short-head triumph.
Few racehorses can have possessed such a belligerent, bullying determination to subdue rivals as Designs On Rome.
The early days
Designs On Rome landed in Hong Kong after a promising two-year-old campaign in Ireland for trainer Pat Flynn. The handler picked up the Moyglare Stud-bred youngster for €10,500 after he had passed through the ring unsold for €18,000 at the Goffs Orby Yearling Sale in September, 2011.
In the last of his five starts for Flynn, Designs On Rome ran on smartly from the rear to finish a respectable second to subsequent 2,000 Guineas winner Dawn Approach in the G1 Vincent O’Brien National Stakes at the Curragh.
His Hong Kong career started with two races at the end of the 2012/13 season, both under Tommy Berry, resulting in a second place on debut and a breakthrough win. Karis Teetan was up top for his first two outings in the 2013/14 season, including a short-head score in the Class 1 Chevalier Cup Handicap (1600m). That confirmed his status as a lead player heading into the 2014 Four-Year-Old Classic Series, which turned into a gripping three-race rivalry with his stablemate and fellow future champion, Able Friend.
The big chestnut took out the Classic Mile, but in the 1800m Hong Kong Classic Cup, Berry set the template for future Designs On Rome successes as he forced Moreira atop Able Friend into an early sprint for home and then swept by when his mount’s stamina kicked in.
“He and Able Friend are similar in that they both achieved the Horse of the Year and won their Group 1s and everything,” Moore said. “He couldn’t do any more than what he did, he won 10 races for us, four of them Group 1s, and he twice fought off Able Friend including over 2000m in the Derby, so he’s another horse that will go into folklore in Hong Kong.”
Designs On Rome’s defeat of Able Friend in the 2014 Derby is destined for legend.
“That 2014 Derby will go down as one of the great races of the Hong Kong turf!” continued Moore, recalling the rousing stretch duel with another of his recently-retired stable stars.
“Two horses that ended up in the top 10 in the world at one point, clearing out to fight out the finish. As the race caller, Darren Flindell said as they came together, ‘This is what we’ve been waiting for!’ We all wanted that to happen and it came off and Designs On Rome won. It’s always worth going back and reflecting on that, bringing it up on the computer and watching it again, it was a great race!”
After the Derby, Designs On Rome took the step into open company with aplomb, winning the APQEII Cup by a neck from Military Attack, with South Africa’s Vercingetorix third and Japanese star Epiphaneia fourth.
After his apogee the following December, Designs On Rome won back to back Hong Kong Gold Cups in 2015 and 2016, the latter a glorious return to form after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to both front fetlocks the previous May.
He also posted two smart handicap wins: shouldering 131lb in the February, 2015 HKG3 Centenary Vase (1800m), he scored by a battling short-head; in October, 2016, a storming last to first drive saw him take out the Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy under 133lb.
In the latter, a rare success at a mile, Designs On Rome turned back the clock as he held off the likes of Blazing Speed, Beauty Only, Joyful Trinity, Helene Paragon and Contentment. It was to be his final success as the wear and tear of age caught up with the seven-year-old. He was unplaced in his subsequent seven starts.
“He was overshadowed a bit by Able Friend’s achievements but, had he been the only horse at the time, he probably would have got more recognition,” said Moore of a champion that carried his mean street fighter attitude around the stables as well as the racetrack.
“He had a few little quirks but we got on great,” Moore said. “He was very honest, but he’s retiring at the right time and he goes out at the same time as some of our very best, including Able Friend, Aerovelocity and Blazing Speed.”
Designs On Rome’s one overseas assignment saw him finish a respectable, albeit slightly below-par, fourth behind Dolniya in the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic (2400m) at Meydan.
He retires with a Hong Kong career return of HK$62,819,325 and 10 wins from 32 starts. He achieved his peak world rating of 123 in both 2014 and 2015, ranking equal eighth in the 2015 World’s Best Racehorse Rankings.
Connections are still finalising plans as to where Designs On Rome’s new home will be.
Designs On Rome (right) edges out Military Attack to score a narrow win in the 2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup.
Joao Moreira was ecstatic after winning the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup atop Designs On Rome.
Designs On Rome gets the better of Able Friend in the 2014 BMW Hong Kong Derby.
Tommy Berry celebrates as Designs On Rome completes back-to-back victories in the 2016 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup.