by David Morgan
The Ventris Handicap, a fascinating Class 2 contest at Sha Tin on Sunday (25 September), is the pinnacle of another exciting 10-race card and the 1400m test has attracted the usual smart line-up of the tough and tested alongside the hopeful aspirants.
Consort (128lb) falls squarely into the latter bracket. Plenty has been said and written about Richard Gibson’s grey. Too much, perhaps, for a horse with a zero from six Hong Kong race record. On the other hand, this is a horse that arrived at Sha Tin with a Group 1 reputation and a big money fee out of Sir Michael Stoute’s yard. And, despite his European incarnation failing to show up - so far, at least - there is that tantalising fourth behind Werther in last season’s BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) to keep hope alive.
A couple of decent barrier trials this term, the latter a solid hit out on the all-weather track - settled in rear, wide progress on the turn, closed off without pressure - has Sunday’s jockey Neil Callan anticipating better days ahead.
“The way he went in the two trials, he’s gradually getting there,” Callan said of the gelding, third behind Gleneagles in the 2015 G1 St James’s Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. “I think going in first-up at 1400 metres is a good idea. Everybody knows the amount of ability he has but he might just need a run to focus him up.”
Consort would not be the first high-profile import to struggle in the early part of their Hong Kong career. Some never recapture their best; others simply take a bit of time to get used to life at Sha Tin. Callan is looking for a positive effort on Sunday.
“I just hope he runs an encouraging race that you can take something from going forward,” he continued. “Last season he was a bit hit and miss - a big run in the Derby and then off it for a few runs; so, if he can run well and hit the line strongly, wherever he finishes, hopefully we can take something out if it and the horse can get over his acclimatisation and start to hit the ground because we know he has the ability, we just need to get it out of him.”
Consort was under the watch of trainer John Moore for his first two Hong Kong starts before a stable switch took the then-colt to Gibson’s barn. Moore will oppose with the four-year-old Invincible Dragon (120lb), a mile Listed winner in France for Andre Fabre and a winner on his Hong Kong debut last term - the first of four Hong Kong starts - under Callan. Joao Moreira will take the ride this time.
“He showed last season that he needs to be covered up and brought with that one run because he has a strong sprint,” Moore said. “Hopefully, from the gate he has, he’ll be shown daylight late because although his sprint is strong, it doesn’t last long - 200 metres, maybe.
“Gate three is a big plus this time, he should get the gun run in behind. Like a lot of my horses he’s just a little underdone, they’re all in need of racing because we can only do so much on the training track.”
California Disegno (119lb), like Consort, came out of the Stoute stable in England with high-class form in the bag. The one-time Hong Kong Derby hopeful showed a couple of smart flashes in four starts last term at Sha Tin and Happy Valley, and displayed enough three weeks ago, with a first-up fifth for the season at the course and distance, to suggest that his best is yet to come.
“He ran well last time, which I expected of him,” said jockey Matthew Chadwick. “He was caught wide and he stuck on gamely. He wants further and if there’s any rain about it will help him. He’ll be better for that last start, the gate (9) isn't ideal but he has a bit of early pace and he’ll keep on. Over this trip, he just lacks that pace when they quicken but he’ll keep on - he’s a horse with some ability and that can bring him into it.”
The day’s closing race also features last start winner Flying Moochi (114lb with Jack Wong’s 7lb allowance), top-weight Circuit Land (133lb), another aspirant from last season’s four-year-old crop, Hero Look (117lb), and the ever-popular bottom-weight, Pikachu (114lb).
Able Deed on the up
In the preceding contest, the Class 3 Yun Ping Handicap (1600m), Moore will look to Able Deed (115lb) to build on the promise of a first-up win this season, achieved from the front at the course and distance two weeks ago.
The four-year-old Australian import was busy during his maiden Hong Kong season, drawing a blank from 10 starts as he slipped from a mark of 65 to 57. That recent success was achieved in Class 4 under a 130lb burden and Moore is confident that his charge will be competitive at the foot of Class 3 off a 5lb rise.
“Able Deed has improved a bit,” Moore said. “He’s on a very light weight now - although he’ll be better over further - and the penny might have dropped there. If it has, we can look forward to getting him well up in the classes.
“Last season, it was like he was lost. He just needed more time. If we were in another country he’d have probably gone out in the paddock for a spell but here he’d be in the box and they can't learn standing in the box.
“He’ll definitely be competitive on Sunday, carrying that light weight - drawn 10 isn't perfect, but he’ll go forward. Off that weight he’s going to sustain that run so he should be right in the mix at the finish.”
Trainer Chris So has started the season in fine form - five wins from five meetings - and will saddle the thrice Hong Kong-raced Smart Boy (120lb), who built on two promising placed runs last term to finish a sound second behind the talented Baba Mama over 1400m on 3 September.
Brett Prebble was in the plate last time and will get the leg up once again on Sunday. But being drawn 14 of 14 is never the ideal spot on the round course and that is something the rider and horse will have to overcome.
“I would have liked to have drawn a nicer gate - 14 is never pleasant, unless you’re down the straight,” said the jockey. “He’s very consistent, all his runs have been really honest, so if we can just get him into a nice enough spot and don't have to do too much work, he’ll be honest again.
“I think he looks like he needs a trip, so I think definitely it (the step up to a mile) would be a positive. He’s a nice horse - he’s a pleasure to ride actually, he’s a push button horse to ride.”
O’Sullivan Alert in trophy race
The afternoon’s trophy race is the Po Leung Kuk Centenary Cup (Handicap), a Class 3 contest over 1200m on the all-weather track. Trainer Paul O’Sullivan had positive words to say about the five-year-old Harbour Alert, still seeking a first Hong Kong win after 16 starts.
“He hasn’t run on the dirt before but he’s always trialled well on the surface and Neil (Callan) said to run him on the dirt,” O’Sullivan said. “He’s come through his trial pretty well. He’ll improve a little bit but I think he should be competitive. All mine on Sunday are a pretty even bunch that could potentially run a place but he’s right up there with them.”
Racing starts at 1pm with the Class 5 Broadwood Handicap (1200m) and concludes with the Ventris Handicap at 5.45pm.
The Richard Gibson-trained Consort ran fourth behind Werther in the HKG1 BMW Hong Kong Derby last season.
Able Deed notched his first Hong Kong win last time in a Class 4 1600m event at Sha Tin on 11 September.