What do you get when a champion jockey is riding at the peak of his powers and one of his greatest rivals is on the sidelines due to suspension?
The answer at Sha Tin on Sunday (February 24) was a commanding show of strength from Zac Purton, who made the most of Joao Moreira’s absence with a spectacular six timer including two wins for Chris So which had the trainer saluting the champion jockey in more ways than one.
Tianchi Monster won’t be the highest rated horse in the field if he makes the BMW Hong Kong Derby field but he is a proven stayer with a turn of foot and Purton deployed it in typically clinical fashion as the Shocking gelding made it three wins from his last four starts in the Tai Hing Handicap (2000m).
The winning margin was just half a length as Tianchi Monster (133lb) wore down Classic Beauty (131lb) but So is hoping this latest success is enough to earn a place in the showdown on 17 March.
“Zac is on fire,” said So. “That was a perfect ride. We were worried about getting stuck in behind from stall 1 if there was no pace but Zac did his job and, of course, we’d love to go for the Derby. It’s not easy to get a Derby horse but he is a proven stayer and also improving.”
Purton looks set to be aboard last week’s Classic Cup runner-up Dark Dream for Frankie Lor on Derby day but agrees that Tianchi Monster’s stamina will be an asset.
He said: “He might not have the class of some Derby horses but I understand why the owners would want to go there. He will run out the trip for sure and over 2000m that can count for a lot.”
Full Of Beauty completes the six timer in style
Tianchi Monster was Purton’s fifth winner of the day – following on from Flying Noble, Time To Celebrate, Chung Wah Spirit and I Do – and the six timer was sealed in impressive fashion as Full Of Beauty stretched his unbeaten run for John Size to four in the Wu King Handicap (1200m).
Dreams of a magnificent seven came up just short as the heavily-backed Glorious Artist (132lb) failed to peg back King Genki (130lb) in the concluding Yau Oi Handicap (1650m) but Purton walked away with justifiable pride from a what he described as “a great day.”
Moreira remains the only rider to have ridden more winners on a single day in Hong Kong thanks to his Sha Tin eight timer in March 2017.
No one has ever ridden seven winners in a day and Purton joins his former Hong Kong rivals Douglas Whyte and Brett Prebble as the only three members of the six timer club.
“That’s a first for me and it’s something special, for sure,” he added. “Racing here is so tough. You never come with a set number of winners in mind that you think you can ride. You just come hoping to do well and when it comes off in the way that it did today then it’s memorable.”
Finesse wins the day for fractious I Do
I Do is a nervous young horse with ample ability and his stage fright manifested itself in temperamental fashion before the Po Tin Handicap (1600m) as he unseated Purton and cantered down to post riderless.
The So You Think gelding (129lb) drifted to 2.2 having been 1.6 a few minutes earlier, but Purton wasn’t to be denied and handled I Do with rare finesse once the stalls opened, gradually smuggling him into contention and only picking up the whip close home as he passed the post half a length clear of Dashing Dart (115lb).
So was in typically colourful form in the winner’s enclosure, staging a mock bow and an admiring salute to the winning rider, but few who witnessed the drama unfold would doubt they had seen a master at work.
Purton said: “He’s always been a hard horse to handle. He got rid of me on the way to the gate on his second start and it was the same again today but the ability is there and he’s seems better once he’s able to follow something.”
Celebrate takes off for Class 2 romp
Time To Celebrate (121lb) started a strong favourite for the six-runner Fu Tai Handicap (1600m) and won with the minimum of fuss, surging into the lead early in the straight and beating Gold Chest (116lb) with plenty in hand.
Winning trainer John Size said: “I’m not sure how strong the competition was. Most races here are hard to win but he was able to take off today and that was good to see.”
Purton’s presence on Dennis Yip-trained runners often tends to be a positive sign and so it was again in the Butterfly Handicap (1400m) and the Yan Oi Tung Cup (1650m).
Flying Noble had the services of the champion for the first time this season and was produced with a perfectly-timed challenge in the former, while Chung Wah Spirit had Purton aboard for the first time since last July in the latter and made his first venture into Class 4 count by storming clear of toiling rivals.
Millard looking to Treasure the moment
Silvestre De Sousa has been one of very few riders able to keep within hailing distance of Purton in recent weeks and the Brazilian celebrated news that he will be extending his Hong Kong stay until late March with a double aboard the progressive Voyage Star and the exciting Refined Treasure.
Tony Millard has been walking a tightrope with Refined Treasure due to the four-year-old’s well-chronicled knee issues but his ability has seldom been in doubt and the South African is hoping to aim high after a striking success in the Sam Shing Handicap (1000m).
De Sousa had to bide his time before a gap came and once it did Refined Treasure (118lb) settled matters with a telling turn of foot to beat Saul’s Special (127lb) going away by a length.
“He’s very fragile but this is what you get with really good horses,” said Millard. “He shouldn’t have won today – Silvestre got himself into a knot there – but the good thing is that he looks like he’s looking for 1200m now.”
The chance to tackle that trip may well present itself on BMW Hong Kong Derby Day (17 March) and that could be the springboard for a crack at some of the best sprinters around.
“Today was something special for all the team who have helped get him here,” added Millard. “We have limited time with him so we’ve got to go for broke.”
De Sousa kept things simple aboard Voyage Star in the Lung Yat Handicap (1200m).
Benno Yung fitted the three-year-old with a visor for the first time and Voyage Star (124lb) responded in alert fashion by making every yard to beat Brave Baby (122lb) by a length and three quarters.
Headgear helps Star shine again for back-to-form O’Sullivan
Things are gradually looking up for trainer Paul O’Sullivan, who followed up Merrygowin’s Happy Valley success last Wednesday by sending out Planet Star (133lb) to land the On Ting Handicap (1400m).
The five-year-old was returning to Class 4 and responded generously to blinkers for the first time, making every yard under Chad Schofield to see off Hinyuen Swiftness (126lb) by two and a quarter lengths.
Hong Kong racing continues on Wednesday 27 February at Happy Valley.