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Gray not giving up on Hard Too Think

Kiwi trainer hoping dual Group 1 winner can bounce back after ‘kissing spine’ operation

Two years ago, the world was Hard Too Think’s oyster.

Two Group 1 trophies, the Singapore Derby and Queen Elizabeth II Cup, as well as a gallant second to Lim’s Lightning in the Group 1 Singapore Gold Cup put the Stephen Gray-trained stayer on a path to greater heights.

It was hard to think the bubble would burst soon after.

On Dec 2, he is just a roughie in the last feature race on the Singapore racing calendar, the $110,000 Group 3 Colonial Chief Stakes over 1,700m on the Polytrack.

Unfortunately, it is a condition known as “kissing spine” – where vetebrae touch each other – that has put his career on the skids.

He has not scored again in 13 starts since his Gold Cup second on Nov 14, 2021. While he did not finish too far behind in 2022, he was closer to the tailend in 2023.

The first year of the decline baffled Gray. The Kiwi trainer only got the answer after chancing upon an article about Australian star galloper Alligator Blood’s (by the same sire, All Too Hard) kissing spine ailment.

At first, he went with the vets’ recommendation of non-invasive treatment, given the shorter downtime. But the performances did not really improve.

Hedging his bet with the softer option did not seem to work. Gray, who also owns the five-time winner, eventually went for the last resort.

As was to be expected, the two runs since the surgery did not bring the Hard Too Think of old back overnight, but Gray has seen encouraging signs.

“We tried the non-invasive approach first, but he was still feeling it,” said Gray.

“In the end, we went for the surgery around three to four months ago. Dr Dan Shaw did it, and has done a great job.

“He stayed for one month in his box. It was hard to get him back.

“The Gold Cup (on Nov 11) came up too quickly, and it was a question mark if he would have come to form in time.”

A first-up run (seventh) in a Class 2 race (1,400m) on Oct 14 was the only lead-up to the Singapore Gold Cup (2,000m) four weeks later.

Hard Too Think had a smooth run in transit but faded to near-last, albeit only seven lengths off the winner Lim’s Kosciuszko.

A second consecutive 14th place from 16 in the time-honoured race might have prompted some to give up, but Gray saw a silver lining.

“In the Gold Cup, he showed good speed and was in a good spot,” he said.

“He was still there halfway up the straight, but then his condition gave out. It was not an ideal prep to go from 1,400m to 2,000m.

“But in last year’s Gold Cup, he had a beautiful prep, but he just didn’t let down.

“He had raced poorly for 12 months, he was not the same. I was about to retire him.

“But after surgery this time, I’d say he looks better and stronger now. His condition has improved.

“The vets have done quite a few kissing spine surgeries and have a 60 to 70 per cent success rate.

“Some come back, for some, it doesn’t work. I’ll give him a couple of races and see how he goes.

“If it doesn’t get any better, I may retire him after that.”

The Colonial Chief Stakes will be the perfect litmus test.

Though Hard Too Think has a turf profile, he won at his only run on Polytrack on Feb 27 – over 1,700m for good measure.

But Gray said that performance had no bearing in his nomination in the second of only two feature races on the alternative surface (Group 3 Merlion Trophy over 1,200m is the other).

“No choice, there aren’t many races around for him,” said Gray, who has booked Vitor Espindola for the ride.

“That was the way the races unfolded, the Colonial Chief Stakes was next up.

“You’d think he’d run better this time. At his best, he would beat these horses.

“But, at the end of the day, you can’t win unless you’re fit.”