When Lucky Vega scooted clear inside the final furlong of yesterday’s Phoenix Stakes at the Curragh, he gave his trainer Jessica Harrington a ninth Group 1 and a fifth to his jockey Shane Foley but perhaps most significantly a first to his owner Mr Yuesheng Zhang.
The Chinese investor is a global operator in the racing industry and while a large part of his operation is in his native China and in Australia, Ireland has and continues to play an integral part of his business plan.
It was in 2010, when scouted by Irish Thoroughbred Marketing (ITM), that Mr Zhang first visited Ireland and activated an interest in thoroughbreds, having initially been interested in horses to compete as eventers. A trip to the Melbourne Cup a few years later influenced him to set up a breeding base in Australia but he has continued to come back to Ireland to invest in stock at both ends of the market.
Working with Michael Donohue of BBA Ireland, Mr Zhang has bought horses to stay in training in Ireland but has also invested in more modest prices horses which he transports to China, where he has played a big part in the development of the racing industry. In 2017, he was responsible for putting together the largest ever single export of Irish racing bloodstock from Ireland to China, when 76 horses were flown from Shannon to Beijing.
ITM hailed this transfer of horses as a significant break for the Irish breeding industry into the progressively lucrative Chinese market and speaking to The Irish Times at the time, BBA Ireland’s Declan Murray said: “This is really good business for the Irish equine industry, not least for small breeders from whom most of these horses were purchased. Many of these horses might not have met the high standards of the Irish and European market but they are still of a higher standard than the average horse currently racing in China.
“So Irish breeders get a good price for horses they might not otherwise have got, the industry here further develops the emerging Chinese market and China gets a higher quality race horse. Everyone wins with this.”
Lucky Vega’s win in the Phoenix Stakes yesterday sparked widespread well wishes from lots of people within the Irish racing industry. Speaking to The Irish Field today, Michael Donohue, who has worked closely with Mr Zhang through his role at BBA Ireland, said: “Lucky Vega’s win was the culmination of a strategic plan that was put in place 10 years ago when Mr Zhang first came to Ireland.
“The aim was always to find and race a top tier horse and although he is not fully there yet, Lucky Vega looked like he has all the attributes to become that.
“Mr Zhang is very committed to the large farm he has purchased in Australia and we’d be hoping in time that Lucky Vega could be the flagship stallion down there. He is by Lope De Vega, who from a limited number of runners, has done really well in Australia. He got two Group 1 sprinters out there.
“Mr Zhang is also the main instigator in pushing the thoroughbred industry forward in mainland China. He has built a magnificent facility in his hometown in Shen Xi province. He developed that facility using a lot of business from Ireland - he got the stables from Cork and he also bought walkers from Ireland as well.
“He used a lot of Irish expertise and services to set up his facility so it is not just the thoroughbred stock he has invested in. He started buying horses in Ireland and having initially bought a full plane load, he has been back every year to buy 20 or 30 horses to send to China. He is very important to the industry.”
Mr Zhang first had horses in training in Ireland in 2015 and initially most of his horses were trained by Michael Halford. In recent years Jessica Harrington has acquired most of his stock and delivered plenty of success, most notably with Leo De Fury and Ancient Spirit, prior to the weekend.
Lucky Vega began his career on the first day of the season at Naas where he proved too strong for Aidan O’Brien’s well touted Lipizzaner in a six-furlong maiden. He was second to Laws Of Indices in the Railway Stakes but turned that form around emphatically yesterday, his trainer suggesting that his previous run had made a man out of him.
He provided ever progressive Lope De Vega with a third Group 1 win in as many continents this season and has set a fair standard for his generation in what was the first European juvenile Group 1 of the campaign. The Middle Park looks like an ideal target for him and then maybe connections will start to think about the Guineas after that, for which a price of 16/1 looks generous enough, even if at this very early stage.
Lucky Vega’s win ended something of a frustrating run for the Harrington team who sent out plenty of seconds in some big contests at both Galway and Goodwood. That trend continued this weekend when their Irish Oaks runner-up Cayenne Pepper filled second place again when unable to hold the challenge of Dermot Weld’s Tarnawa in the Group 3 Give Thanks Stakes at Cork on Saturday.
The daughter of Shamardal was impressive in winning that contest on her seasonal debut, giving 10lbs to Cayenne Pepper. Weld also recently reintroduced Kastasa, another four-year-old filly with a similarly progressive profile, to win first time out in the Listed Vintage Tipple Stakes at Gowran Park.
It might be the case that both of these fillies have had a setbacks of sorts, but it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Weld has been training them all season to go back to Irish Champions Weekend, where they were both successful last season. In the case of Tarnawa, she can defend her title in the Group 2 Blandford Stakes but Kastasa, who won the Petingo Handicap last term, could be one for the Irish St Leger this time around.