Trainer Ricky Yiu could be a contender… but needs to consider the consequences of a championship chase. Photo by HKJC.

Michael Cox’s HK Six-up: Yiu could be a contender… but needs to consider the consequences of a championship chase

Michael Cox

Michael Cox

For hutchishonkers.com

27/12/19

 

News that the season finale has been scheduled for Happy Valley – with a replacement fixture slated for July 15 – brings to mind the last time it was held at the city track and one of the greatest moments in Hong Kong racing history.

In July 2013 Dennis Yip secured the title in the final race of the season in front of a capacity crowd and became the first Chinese trainer to take the crown since his former boss Brian Kan 12 years earlier.

 

Dennis Yip became Hong Kong Champion Trainer in 2013. Photo by HKJC.

At the time it was thought that it would take at least that long to happen again, given the dominance of expat trainers John Size, John Moore and Tony Cruz (of Macanese descent) – but could a Chinese trainer take the title in 2020?

With just over one third of the term completed, local trainers fill the first three spots on the championship ladder: Ricky Yiu (27 wins), Francis Lui (22) and Danny Shum (20).

Shum’s more consistent record in recent years – he has finished in the top five for the last five seasons – has him rated the best chance of mounting a Yip-like upset, but could Yiu be the roughie?

With Lui and Shum notoriously fast starters it is Yiu that is the real surprise of the trio.

Yiu needs just two more wins to match his entire win total from last season and the 25-season veteran is on track to match his career high of 49 wins set in 2010-11.

In the cyclical handicapping system a poor season can often precipitate a bounce-back campaign where horses that have dropped in the ratings can surge back into form. And so it was for Yiu: a slow end to last term – he had one win from 26 starters in July – wasn’t a bad thing.

Also in Yiu’s favour is that he now has horses based at Conghua, giving him eight extra boxes for the late season haul. He has 69 horses and the right sort of stable balance if he wants to mount a championship challenge.

While older horses like Simple Elegant (three wins), King’s Man (two wins) and Megatron (two) have got the momentum going, Yiu has a host of untapped talents ready to unleash.

Yiu has 15 52-raters and others like Colonel – a three-year-old PPG that was third on debut two weeks ago at Sha Tin – that could provide ample ammunition should the trainer choose to mount a challenge.

Of course that challenge – which would mean running horses during the stifling summer heat when he otherwise might not – comes with a consequence and Yiu might wisely choose not to challenge at all.

The aftermath of Yip’s sole championship stands as a cautionary tale for those chasing one-off glory.

Yip had clawed his way into the upper bracket of trainers but after throwing everything at the 2013 title, his results dropped sharply in the following season, from 69 wins to 35 in 2013-14, and then less than 40 wins in the following three campaigns. After slowly climbing the ranks and establishing himself, it could be argued that the effort of that championship – horses pushed to their ratings limits, and young horses sent to the races too soon – put Yip in a rut he is still climbing out of.

Given Yiu can qualify for an extension by finishing top-five in the championship in three seasons from now, a more long term conservative view might be the way to go.

Even though John Size has just 14 wins so far, the 10-time champion would still be a strong favourite to secure his fifth straight championship.

 

Diversity and Badel rising

As great as jockey championship battles between Joao Moreira and Zac Purton are, having them win more than one third of the races between them is a bit much and the diversity of results recently can only be healthy.

Last weekend eight different jockeys won on the ten-race card and while the spread of winners wasn’t so great on Thursday, Alexis Badel continued his hot form with a treble.

After a slow start, the lightweight Frenchman has five wins from his last two meetings and seven wins from the last four fixtures.

Of particular note is Badel’s riding at Happy Valley, a course that should be as foreign as it gets for a jockey used to the likes of Longchamp and Chantilly.

Alexis Badel rode another three winners at Happy Valley last night. Photo by HKJC.

Badel has embraced the challenge of riding at Happy Valley, often employing unexpected tactics and it has paid off with a strike rate of close to 10 per cent during various short stints over the last three seasons, a rate that far outstrips his return on the Sha Tin turf (6 per cent).

 

No spark for Pingwu

Hong Kong’s biggest horse may have run his last race after Pingwu Spark refused to load before a barrier trial at Sha Tin on Tuesday.

Once Pingwu Spark, a 1300-plus pound behemoth, made a habit of digging his heels in behind the barriers it was always going to be an uphill battle to rehabilitate him.

Pingwu Spark looks to have run his last race in Hong Kong. Photo by HKJC.

The giant grey was already on a strict watch from stewards after refusing to load before the Group 2 Jockey Club Sprint in November, the same race Pakistan Star stopped in and subsequently ended his career.

 

2020 Derby vision

The 2020 Hong Kong Derby crop has been underwhelming so far.

Outside of Francis Lui’s More Than This – the nominal top-pick – there is a distinct lack of depth, but Private Secretary did everything right at Happy Valley on Thursday to put himself in the reckoning.

Private Secretary was very impressive winning his Hong Kong debut. Photo by HKJC.

There was a lot to like about Private Secretary’s performance, not least of all the fact the northern hemisphere three-year-old was able to do it first-up after more than six months since his last race.

To give you an idea of how rare that feat is, the last Private Purchase to win at Happy Valley at his first run in Hong Kong was subsequent horse of the year and G1 winner Military Attack in 2012.

Private Secretary’s last two runs were a win over 2240m in the Listed Cocked Hat Stakes at Goodwood and a fourth over 2392m in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot.

That type of staying form can see a horse outpaced for early speed or a turn-of-foot upon arrival in Hong Kong, but Private Secretary showed an abundance of both at his local debut.

Happy Valley’s 1650m, with its sharp dash to the first turn, is a serious test of early foot speed but Vincent Ho was able to take advantage of barrier one by maintaining a box-seat position.

Then, when asked to take the rail at the top of the short Valley straight, Private Secretary burst through with a race winning turn-of-foot.

 

There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to Tony Cruz’s race planning at times, but you can’t doubt his big race results and he seems to have Private Secretary on track to give the big-spending Siu family their first ever Hong Kong Derby success.

 

2021 Derby watch

While the 2020 Derby class may lack depth, 2021 already looks like an intriguing crop based on the depth of the three-year-olds in both hemispheres, and the Sius may already have a leftfield contender.

Last week Edmond Siu-owned Kilindini showed a brilliant turn-of-foot to win the Group 1 Cape Guineas at Kenilworth.

Hong Kong trainer Tony Millard will prepare Kilindini after sourcing the colt for Siu from the 2018 Bloodstock South Africa National Yearling Sale.

“I can’t thank Tony Millard enough,”said Cape-based trainer Brett Crawford, who predicted a bright future for the colt once he makes his way to Millard at Sha Tin: “He’s progressive and will only get better.”

 

Aethero-less Griffin Trophy underwhelms

The Griffin Trophy isn’t a race that usually creates a big impression but this year’s edition – essentially a HK$2million maiden – is particularly underwhelming.

Then again, had the Griffin-qualified Aethero been healthy, it would have simply been a one-act affair with a money-back favourite going around for practice.

Of the eight entrants for Sunday’s race, none have won previously, and only two – likely favourite Lucky Quality and Rich And Lucky – have placed.

Lucky Quality went within a whisker of winning on debut just over two weeks ago when third at Happy Valley and should be suited by a step up to 1400m.

 

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