By David Morgan
Romantic Touch came up half a length short at the end of last year’s G3 January Cup Handicap (1800m) as Flame Hero surged past close home to emerge the victor in a crowd-raising four-horse scramble to the line. Tomorrow night (Wednesday, 4 January), the old rivals are set to face-off again, two of 11 high-class contenders shooting for Happy Valley’s only pattern race of the season.
The Tony Cruz-trained Romantic Touch attempted to make all 12 months ago. On that occasion, the bay gelding carried 120lb, three pounds more than Flame Hero. This time, both horses will shoulder 129lb, and both are heading into the contest after solid Group 1 efforts at last month’s LONGINES Hong Kong International Races.
“Romantic Touch ran a great race to finish a close second to Beauty Only in the (G2) Jockey Club Mile two starts back, and I thought he ran quite well in the Hong Kong Mile, too, last time,” Cruz said this morning (Tuesday, 3 January).
The six-year-old had a tough run wide on the track in the latter race but kept on to finish three lengths eighth behind stablemate Beauty Only. Jockey Matthew Chadwick believes that run holds more merit than the finishing position suggests.
“He was a little unlucky last time,” Chadwick asserted. “Silvestre (de Sousa) on Sun Jewellery wouldn't go to the fence, so I was caught wide, otherwise I think we’d have finished in the money. If Sun Jewellery had gone to the fence and I’d have been able to slot in, I think he’d have run a lot closer.”
Unlike last year, Romantic Touch is unlikely to play the role of hare this time around. “I expect he’ll be able to sit handy, just in behind them, and a first three finish, that’s what I’m expecting,” Cruz said.
“He just seems to like a slower track,” the trainer continued. “I think he likes give in the ground, that’s when he shows his real ability. The surface at Happy Valley will help him, he’s performed well there before and I expect him to go very close tomorrow.”
Chadwick, too, is expecting the Northern Meteor gelding to be in the mix in the mid-week feature, race seven of eight on the card.
“He seems to be going OK, I wouldn’t say he’s flying, but he’s well enough to be right there at the finish,” he said. “His condition going into the Hong Kong Mile was probably a bit better than it is now, but in saying that, I’m happy with him and he’s still in good enough condition to run his race.
“He was just that bit more sparky going into the international race. He was primed for that and he hasn’t had a run since, so he might just need waking up a bit.”
Flame Hero will attempt to emulate Happy Valley specialist Noble Conqueror (2010 & 2011) in winning the race back-to-back and Peter Ho is confident that the seven-year-old is in good fettle.
“He ran a very good second two starts ago in the (G2) Jockey Club Cup and I was actually very happy with the way he finished in the Hong Kong Vase, he didn’t run a bad race. The competition was very strong and he still ran well,” he said.
Flame Hero was stepped up to 2400m in the G1 Hong Kong Vase latest, and, whilst no match for the likes of Satono Crown and Highland Reel, nonetheless boxed on down the home stretch to finish a fair ninth of 14.
“He pulled up OK,” Ho continued, “his condition is slightly better than it was last time, he’s eating well and he looks brilliant, so hopefully he can run a good race and maybe win the January Cup again. He’s drawn five, which is fine, and Derek (Leung) knows the horse well.”
Horse Of Fortune will carry top-weight of 133lb and trainer Tony Millard is hoping class will count back at Happy Valley, the scene of four of the six-year-old’s five Hong Kong wins. The course and distance scorer ran a fine sixth behind Maurice in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) last start.
“He was top fit going into the big race last time and he had a nice run there,” Millard said. “Tomorrow he has a nice draw (2) but he does carry a lot of weight. We’re hoping he will reproduce his form and if he does then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be right there - his form is excellent. He beat a lot of those Group 1 horses at level weights last time.
“With the weight he has to carry, I just think he’ll need a little bit of luck to go his way. If he can hold his class, he’ll be a chance.”
Also in the line-up are Danny Shum’s smart Circuit Land (126lb), Harbour Master (123lb) and Basic Trilogy (116lb) from the John Moore stable, the Cruz-trained Helene Super Star (119lb), and the Caspar Fownes-trained trio of Twin Delight (119lb), Gonna Run (113lb) and Renaissance Art (113lb).
And propping up the handicap is the Ricky Yiu-trained Packing Dragon (113lb), a Mastercraftsman half-brother to Hong Kong’s brilliant former champion Ambitious Dragon, and one of the most honest gallopers on the circuit. The five-year-old grey has notched four wins at the Valley, three at the course and distance, two of which have been achieved this season.
“He’s a nice, big horse and always honest,” jockey Keith Yeung said. “I rode him in a 1200m all-weather track trial recently and he gave me a very good feel. Ricky has obviously done a very good job with him. I believe he will run very well tomorrow.”
The gelding has drawn gate 10 of 11 but Yeung is unperturbed by that, given the 1800m start’s location at the top of the home stretch.
“Over 1800 metres at Happy Valley, unlike the 1650, you don’t have to rush to go forward, you can take a little more time from the outside barrier and with that nice long stride he has, I won’t need to rush him. I can let him race where he’s comfortable and then roll forward.”
Imperial Gallantry (120lb) can be a bit of a handful in his races and Alexis Badel knows it. The Frenchman is nonetheless looking forward to climbing back aboard the Paul O’Sullivan trainee in race five, the Class 3 Cleveland Handicap (1800m).
Badel, whose short-term contract concludes at the end of this month, partnered the five-year-old to finish third over 1650m at the course last month.
“He’s not an easy horse to ride but I think the distance will be perfect for him,” Badel said. “Last time it was at the mile and he was a little bit outpaced, which is difficult at Happy Valley, but he finished very well.”
And as for the Hong Kong experience, Badel is enjoying the lifestyle and the sport.
“When you come to Hong Kong, the brain is not fast enough in the first races but then it becomes good after a few meetings,” he said. “French races are slow and tactical, but here it’s special, you have to be quick, you have to be tough and you have to make decisions very fast.”
Isaac exceeding expectations
With a rating of 59, Isaac (132lb) is a fair way removed from the front rank of John Moore’s seemingly strong four-year-old battalion but the son of Hinchinbrook is aiming to back-up at the course and distance in race three, section one of the Class 4 Great George Handicap (1200m), which has attracted a full field of 12.
“He’s been a bit of a revelation,” Moore said. “He won his trial in Australia before he came here but it was a slow time and expectations weren’t that great.”
Isaac followed a promising fifth over 1000m at the Valley in November with that second start success and heads into his third assignment with those limited expectations already raised.
“He drew the good gate and got the gun ride last time but Zac Purton got off him the other morning after working him and said that he thought he was better than this grade, so that’s always good to hear from a top jockey. Drawn well again (5), he’ll definitely be the horse to beat in the race.”
Flame Hero gets the better of Romantic Touch (gold and purple cap) to win the January Cup last season.
Horse Of Fortune lands a stylish win in the G3 Sa Sa Ladies�� Purse earlier this season.