By Andrew Hawkins
The countdown is on to the LONGINES International Jockeys’ Championship at Happy Valley in two weeks’ time, and Wednesday night’s (23 November) meeting at the city circuit provides a last opportunity for Hong Kong-based riders to gain a place in the 12-strong line-up.
Eight riders from all corners of the globe were announced last week as confirmed participants in the 7 December challenge: Hugh Bowman (Australia), Mickael Barzalona (France), Pat Smullen (Ireland), Mirco Demuro (Italy), Keita Tosaki (Japan), Gavin Lerena (South Africa), Ryan Moore (UK) and Florent Geroux (United States).
This leaves four spots open for those jockeys contracted to ride in Hong Kong. One position is allocated to the reigning Hong Kong champion rider – this year, Brazilian ace Joao Moreira – while three other spots are based on performance in the early part of the current season.
The top two leading riders in the jockeys’ premiership, minus Moreira, gain a berth, while the fourth slot is reserved for the leading homegrown rider.
Australian Zac Purton has locked in one position after riding 25 winners so far this season, including a four-timer on Sunday (20 November). His compatriot Nash Rawiller would have taken the second spot after amassing 20 victories but he has been ruled out through suspension.
This leaves 13-time Hong Kong champion jockey Douglas Whyte in the box seat to represent Hong Kong for the 16th time in the IJC, with his rival of old Brett Prebble on 12 wins and needing a treble – and results to fall his way – to make a fifth appearance in the prestigious competition.
Prebble goes to Happy Valley with seven rides, boosted by a slice of fortune at Whyte’s expense. He has gained an extra ride in the last, the Class 3 Ho Man Tin Handicap (1200m), with first reserve Super Turbo (133lb) gaining a run after Giant Stars, who Whyte was set to ride, was withdrawn.
This gives Prebble a strong hand to end the night, with David Hall-trained Super Turbo joining Winston’s Lad and Big Bang Bong as top chances for the Australian hoop.
Francis Lui-trained Winston’s Lad (133lb) gets back down to Class 3 in the first section of the Hung Hom Handicap (1650m) after being somewhat disappointing up in Class 2, having begun his Hong Kong career with two straight wins early last season.
Last time out, he finished 11th behind Precision King at his first try at Happy Valley after ending up a long way back in a race dominated from the front, but Prebble believes the son of Churchill Downs may just be a work in progress at the city track.
“He strikes me as the type of horse who will take some time getting used to Happy Valley,” Prebble said this morning (Tuesday, 22 November). “I think it’s different for him but he does have a short burst of speed which should come in handy around the tighter turns. Back into Class 3, with an inside draw, it’s hard to know what to make of him but I go in knowing that he has a few things in his favour that can help him put it all together.
“That said, he did seem to struggle at the top of Class 3 last time around so it might be a bit tough for him with a lot of weight to carry. And I’m still not sure that the mile is really what he wants, although we might get a good guide from this.”
In the second section of the Class 3 Hung Hom Handicap a race later, Prebble continues his association with John Size’s Big Bang Bong (123lb), who improved significantly when fourth on the dirt at Sha Tin last time out with the jockey jumping aboard for the first time.
“He’s a big baby,” Prebble said. “He might have appreciated a little bit of give in the all-weather track and he gave me a nice ride last time. He switched off and finished the race off really well. He showed there was something there, but he’s still a work in progress.”
“Changing things around won’t harm him, he’s still learning, so going to Happy Valley is probably good for him, it will help him learn a bit faster. The 1650m is not a negative and he might appreciate the kinder surface underfoot at the Valley.”
Chadwick chasing down Leung for homegrown rider position
The race for the leading homegrown rider - a graduate of Hong Kong’s Apprentice Jockeys’ School who has at least reached their 3lb claim - has also been heating up, with four riders still in contention for the coveted final spot.
Derek Leung is in the hot seat but needs medical clearance to confirm his availability to ride. He has been on the sidelines since a fall late last month, but remains the leading local rider this term with six wins. However, there is a pack chasing, with Alex Lai, Vincent Ho and Matthew Chadwick all on four wins.
Chadwick in particular is rueing an opportunity missed, as he went to Sha Tin on Sunday confident he could bridge the gap on Leung.
“I had high hopes for Pakistan Star, obviously, but I also thought I could get a win out of Winner’s Way,” Chadwick said. “And he ran well, he ran terrific, but he just gave the winner (Volitation) too much ground. He’s a nice horse. Throw in the second on Romantic Touch in the Jockey Club Mile, too. It was tough.
“I know now it will be hard to catch Derek, but you never know what can happen if my horses get a bit of luck.”
Chadwick returns to Happy Valley after a fall of his own at the smaller track last Wednesday (16 November), when he was ruled out of completing his rides after the third. He has only three rides this time – Rugby Diamond (114lb) in the Class 4 Kowloon City Handicap (1200m), Winningli (122lb) in the Class 4 Ma Tau Wai Handicap (1650m) and California Joy (126lb) in the first section of the Class 3 Hung Hom Handicap (1650m) – but is hopeful that he has a winning chance or two among them.
“Rugby Diamond, he is fairly one-dimensional,” the rider said. “He needs to get across and just lead, so hopefully he can get a comfortable run and then he can show his best, especially with no weight on his back.
“I quite like Winningli as a horse but he’s still pretty tall and skinny, he’ll be a better horse in time. I thought he was going to go close last time out but he was just grinding, grinding all the way home. He’s a nice horse to ride though and the step up to 1650m should suit him, but I wish he’d drawn a better gate.
“And California Joy, I know he’s looked disappointing but I still think we’re learning a bit about him. He seems to stop when he hits the front, he switches off, so he has to be given a ride to suit. He does have a turn of foot though, so Happy Valley can suit, but again, it’s all about the run he gets throughout. It would be nice to win another race for the owner - we had some great moments with California Memory.
“It’s not going to be easy, but hopefully we can have a good night.”
Racing at Happy Valley kicks off with the Class 5 San Po Kong Handicap (1000m) at 7.15pm.
Winston��s Lad took his second Hong Kong win in a Class 3 1200m event at Sha Tin back in December 2015.
Rugby Diamond notched his maiden win in Hong Kong in a Class 5 1200m event at Happy Valley late last season.