By David Morgan
A year ago, Lucky Bubbles had the Hong Kong sprint division at his feet. Francis Lui’s up-and-comer had posted an impressive win in a local Group 2 contest and was about to run a coming-of-age second to Chautauqua in the HK$14 million G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize: on Sunday (7 May) he heads into that same 1200m showcase with a point to prove, still seeking an elusive first G1 score.
“After his run in last year’s Chairman’s Sprint Prize it was all very exciting,” Lui recalled. “We had a horse that we thought could go on and win in these big races.”
But since a first-up success in October’s G2 Premier Bowl Handicap at the course and distance, a victory that was seen at the time as confirmation of Lucky Bubbles’ ascent to the top of the stack, that excitement has given way to disappointment and some frustration.
“It’s been a little bit disappointing this season because we know he is a very good horse,” the trainer continued. “But one or two times he has met interference in the race, so there’s been some bad luck, too.”
A string of three seconds turned Lucky Bubbles from champion-elect to nearly horse in a shade more than two months. The pocket chestnut chased home Not Listenin’tome in November’s G2 Jockey Club Sprint, failed by a short-head to peg back the old champ Aerovelocity after an uncomfortable run in the G1 Hong Kong Sprint, and was unable to reel in front-runner Peniaphobia in January’s G2 Centenary Sprint Cup, all at Sunday’s course and distance.
“He’s been beaten a few times and he’s just looked like maybe he’s not sharp enough,” said Lui of the horse he guided through a relentless rise from Class 3 breakthrough winner off a 69 rating in June, 2015.
In that trio of runner-up efforts earlier this term, Lucky Bubbles still managed to put together fast final 400m splits. His closing sectional for each race, respectively, was 22.25s, 22.20s and 22.29s with his Jockey Club Sprint and Hong Kong Sprint splits being faster than any other horse in those races. But a lacklustre fifth in a messy edition of the G2 Sprint Cup (1200m) in early April saw the bubble burst.
Third past the post on that occasion with a third-fastest closing split of 22.42s, no match for the victorious Mr Stunning’s 21.90s, the Sebring five-year-old was subsequently demoted to fifth after shifting in and causing interference to the promoted third (dead-heat), Blizzard.
The fallout from that defeat was heavy. Brett Prebble, ever-present aboard the Australian-bred through his 16 Hong Kong starts - including six wins - was asked to step down.
But Prebble was not just the race-day jockey; the Australian ace had become almost ubiquitous when it came to Lucky Bubbles and there was visible affection between rider and horse. Since he first sat on Lucky Bubbles for a 1000m barrier trial in February 2015, the former Sydney champion has climbed aboard the sprinter for morning exercise or barrier trials a total of 258 times, and 175 of those track work sits have been this season alone.
“It was a very difficult decision to make,” Lui said. “I can’t say Brett did anything wrong, not at all. We just thought a change might help the horse.
“We just wanted to try to do something different, a new style. Brett knows this horse very well, he would ride him in track work almost every day and we thought that just maybe if we freshen things up, try something new, it might remind the horse – just wake up the horse a bit.”
Hugh Bowman will take Prebble’s place in Sunday’s 12-runner line-up that features a pair of Hong Kong Champion Sprinters, Aerovelocity and Peniaphobia, as well as the likes of Not Listenin’tome and Amazing Kids and this year’s rising star, Mr Stunning.
“I talked with the owners (Lucky Syndicate) and we have booked Hugh Bowman, he is one of the world’s best jockeys – his record in big races is excellent,” Lui said of the rider who has already notched 11 G1 scores in Australia this term, plus the G1 Hong Kong Gold Cup at Sha Tin atop Werther.
As for Lucky Bubbles, the admirable galloper worked on Monday morning under an exercise rider, clocking 45.9s (22.3, 23.6) for 800m down the Sha Tin back stretch.
“He’s doing fine, he galloped down the back from the 1800-metre start and he was good, I’m happy with him - he goes in there with a chance,” Lui said.
The Chairman’s Sprint Prize, the fourth leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, is one of two G1 features at Sha Tin on Sunday, 7 May alongside the HK$16 million Champions Mile.
The Champions Mile has attracted a field of seven that includes Hong Kong Derby hero Rapper Dragon, G1 scorers Beauty Only, Helene Paragon and Contentment, the smart Circuit Land, and the British-trained pair of Stormy Antarctic and Convey.
Chautauqua��s surges late to deny Lucky Bubbles (No. 7) in last year��s Chairman��s Sprint Prize.
Brett Prebble and Lucky Bubbles win the G2 Premier Bowl Handicap on his seasonal reappearance last October.