Big Jag an encouraging third in Hong Kong

Updated: December 14, 1999, 12:38 PM ET
By Ed McNamara | Special to ESPN.com

HONG KONG -- The huge bay gelding had traveled west through nine time zones, crossing the international dateline to try four things he had never done: Run on grass, over 5 furlongs, from right to left, and on a straight course. The 5,000-mile journey from Los Angeles to southeastern China didn't faze Big Jag, and if his itinerary had been 220 yards longer, it would have been a perfect trip.

Big Jag's position seemed hopeless halfway down the stretch on Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse, and even his backers among the crowd of 57,909 had given up on the 10-1 shot. Then the 6-year-old California-bred by a sire with a $1,000 stud fee delivered a brilliant burst of acceleration that few million-dollar yearlings ever produce.

He was never going to catch the first two, local heroes Fairy King Prawn and Crystal Charm. But Big Jag shot past his other 10 rivals in the final eighth of a mile to come in third, 2¼ lengths behind, in the $681,580 Sprint on Hong Kong International Race day. To trainer Tim Pinfield, it felt like a triumph.

"I was happy with the result because with 1½ furlongs to go, you would have given him no chance," the 33-year-old Englishman said. "Then all of a sudden he got his feet under him and got running. As they were pulling up, they were all looking at his ass. Another furlong, or even a half-furlong, and he would have won."

Big Jag is a top-quality closing sprinter, a rarity, especially in California, where early speed always has ruled. Spotting world-class burners open lengths early presents major obstacles, and Big Jag couldn't overcome them last month in the Breeders' Cup Sprint or in Hong Kong. As he did on Nov. 6 at Gulfstream Park, Big Jag was near the back of a big field before kicking in powerfully. He was a non-threatening third in Florida, too.

"He's not the fastest breaker," Pinfield said. "And he's such a big horse (17 hands) that he's not easy to maneuver. But he came back well from the Breeders' Cup, and this was the only option we had for a few months. He worked well on the grass the first time he tried it in California. The decision to come to Hong Kong was made only a week before the race.

"He really is quite a star. He's a blue-collar horse who has paid his own way."

Although he's never there early, Big Jag usually shows up at the business end of a race. He was 5-for-5 in 1998 and 5-for-10 this year, taking eight stakes and accumulating more than $1 million for owner-breeder Julius Zolezzi of San Diego.

His rider for the past 13 races has been Jose Valdivia Jr., a 25-year-old native of Peru and a nephew of Fernando Toro, a former standout in the Southern California jockey colony. Valdivia has lived with Big Jag for 14 months, but even he was surprised by the sudden late move at Sha Tin.

"He's never shown any early speed, but today he actually broke pretty well," Valdivia said. "Then after about an eighth of a mile, the other horses just left him. He couldn't keep up. At the furlong marker, I said to myself, 'Well, maybe turf is not his game.' Then the last sixteenth, he just flew home. We're all tickled to death with the way he ran."

Zolezzi, 70, is the third generation to operate Zolezzi Enterprises, a tuna-fishing operation that sells its catch to Chicken of the Sea. Having made his fortune in testing the waters of the Pacific, Zolezzi didn't hesitate to take his chances in a distant foreign port. He's glad they came and wouldn't mind returning to the Far East after picking up a purse of more than $68,000.

"We got third, and we're happy," Zolezzi said. "I think he did pretty well for the first time on the grass. If we get nominated again, we'll come back."

Pinfield's next objective for Big Jag is to repeat last year's victory in the Palos Verdes Handicap in late January at 6 furlongs over Santa Anita's main track. After that, there's a megabucks dirt sprint in Dubai at the end of March, and if all goes well, England's prestigious Royal Ascot meeting in mid-June could be on the agenda. That would be a glorious return home for Pinfield and his wife, Debbie, his assistant trainer and Big Jag's exercise rider, after two-plus years in California.

"This horse can take the traveling so well," Valdivia said. "The paddock at Sha Tin was packed and very loud and some of the other horses were really getting worked up. This guy was cool as a cucumber, though, and just went about his business. He had to deal with a lot on this trip, and he handled it great."

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