Pia Brandt will not necessarily be a familiar face for many Hong Kong racing fans but aficionados are far more likely to recognise the silks carried by her horse Called To The Bar.
The five-year-old will carry the blue and white silks of Fair Salinia Ltd, the breeding and racing operation of Sven and Carina Hanson made most famous by Pride, the phenomenal mare trained by Alain de Royer-Dupre. She was narrowly denied a pulsating 2005 renewal of the Hong Kong Cup by Vengeance Of Rain before being on the right side of a photo finish with Admire Moon on what was to be her valedictory performance the following year.
In a neat piece of symmetry, Brandt was associated with one of Pride’s sons, who also has a connection of his own to the racecourse at Sha Tin. One Foot In Heaven, sired by Fastnet Rock, has proved her most capable progeny to date, winning twice at Group 2 level in France for Royer-Dupre before claiming a respectable third place in the Hong Kong Vase three years ago.
That day, Brandt was a guest of her Swedish compatriots and she ended up taking over training of One Foot In Heaven, who returned from a somewhat disappointing stint in Australia and registered a welcome win in a conditions event at Saint-Cloud only a few weeks ago.
This time around, she assumes a far more active role in the Vase.
“I was just visiting when One Foot In Heaven was running together with Sven and Carina,” she explains.
“I’ve known them maybe for 10 years, and the last five years since I’ve been training for them, we’ve become quite close.
“We have a share in this horse together, and we have a two-year-old who won the other day. They’ve had a lot of success with Mr. Royer-Dupre and when he was starting to think of having fewer horses, they moved on. We are friends as well, communicating a lot, and they come and stay with us when they’re in France.”
Brandt says the decision to bring Called To The Bar to the meeting was the result of agreement and compromise.
“Sven and Carina do love coming to Hong Kong with a horse after their experience with Pride and One Foot In Heaven, in their heads I think he was aiming to come here all the time,” she explains. “I was thinking of the Ascot Gold Cup first, it’s another great event, but unfortunately for him the ground was too heavy that day and he didn’t manage the 4000 metres.
“He’s probably a 3000-metre horse ideally, but last time he raced over 2400 metres he was not beaten far by (subsequent Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner) Waldgeist.
“We’ve had to share (the decision). It’s my first time with a runner and it’s a lovely event, we’re very well taken care of.”
Called To The Bar is a Fair Salinia homebred with seven wins under his belt, principally in his warm-up for Royal Ascot in the Group 2 Prix Vicomtesse Vigier at Longchamp in late May.
Although lightly-raced, as a five-year-old with only 16 starts to date, he has already packed in a visit to America in 2017 to finish second in the Group 1 Belmont Derby and was a good fourth on his subsequent outing a few months later behind Hawkbill at the Dubai World Cup Carnival. Most recently, he took the Group 3 Prix Gladiateur back in Paris in early September.
“He’s a horse who has had his issues – if you look at him from in front you’d understand why – but with age he’s become more solid and he loves training,” Brandt says.
“When he’s running, he gives everything, he’s not a horse you have to, or want to, run every two weeks. It means you can bring him down and up, preparing him for a race. He doesn’t need a prep-race, he’s easy to get ready.
“He was supposed to have another race at the end of October in France but the ground was very heavy so I cancelled that. He’s fresh, he’s well, he has only raced five times this year and he likes good ground. He had a piece of work at home last week before he came here and he seems very happy.
“Of course, this will be tough. You need some luck but he’s a late speed horse, so hopefully he can pick up ground in the end.”
Swedish roots, global approach
Brandt moved from Scandinavia to Chantilly back in 2015 and has made a particular impact on the international stage. Her first Group 1 winner was Mont Ormel, who took the 2016 Grand Prix de Paris before his transfer to Hong Kong under his new racing name, Helene Charisma. Although the gelding has ultimately failed to build on that foundation for the John Moore stable, he does have a handful of Happy Valley victories.
Others to have flown the flag for the stable include the globe-trotting L’Amour De Ma Vie, who landed the Balanchine Stakes in Dubai, and frequent British visitor Fresles. Neufbosc, who was second in last year’s Grand Prix de Paris, is now a regular runner in the major Australian cups for the David Hayes stable.
“I enjoy travelling around if you have the horses for it,” Brandt explains. “I don’t want to do it just for holidays, I like doing the Dubai Carnival for the higher-level races.
“You need the owners for it as well. I don’t have the biggest owners but I do have owners who are really into the game and have success.
“I did follow Helene Charisma out here. He beat some very good horses when he won the Grand Prix de Paris, you had horses like Talismanic and Cloth Of Stars behind him. It’s just a pity he didn’t have the success here.”
Her domestic season has been impressive, too, with a best-ever annual tally also secured. The headline act has been the two-year-old Mkfancy, who adjusted to a marked step up in class to lift the Group 1 Criterium de Saint-Cloud.
“He’s going to keep us alive during the winter with big dreams,” she smiles. “It’s been a good season. We had a Group 1 winner and we’ve had 53 in all, including a win in Dubai, so we’re happy with that.”
As well as being trainer and part-owner of Called To The Bar, Brandt has also completed the trifecta of work-rider this week, steering her charge through his morning exercise.
It is no difficulty for a woman who was a successful rider during a handful of years as a professional in Sweden before turning her attention to conditioning.
“He is normally my husband Joakim’s horse but he couldn’t come this week – he’s coming for the race – so I had to take over,” she says.
“If I have to, I ride, but he’s a lovely horse to be riding and he seems easier here than he is at home, so far.”
Whether Called To The Bar proves up to the task in such a competitive event remains to be seen, although Brandt’s determination never to be making up the numbers has already been illustrated.
And after witnessing a son of the mighty Pride perform so well here as a spectator, she could perhaps return one day with another competitor of her own.
“I have a lovely daughter of Pride and Kingman, a three-year-old filly called Queen,” she says. “She’s a copy of Pride. She has won and has been placed twice in Group 3s (including most appropriately in the Pride Stakes at Newmarket).
“Pride is still alive, she’s in Ireland now. Fair Salinia did sell her yearling because he was a colt, but if she has fillies, they keep them.”
Certainly, Pride will be an appropriate word if Hong Kong International Races success comes Pia Brandt’s way, either this time or in the years to come.