Fortune favoured Lucky Bubbles at long last in the Group 1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m) as the honest chestnut finally grabbed a first top-flight victory in thrilling fashion at Sha Tin on Sunday.
It was in this HK$14 million feature last year that the Francis Lui-trained Lucky Bubbles stamped himself as a sprinter of the future, racing to the lead with the post in sight, only to be swamped by the phenomenal closing burst of Australian speedster Chautauqua.
At that time, it seemed as though Lucky Bubbles was set to take all before him this season, a view confirmed when he took the G2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m) in October.
However, in four starts over the course and distance between the Premier Bowl and the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, the five-year-old had remained winless, filling the runner-up’s stall in the G2 Jockey Club Sprint, the G1 Hong Kong Sprint and the G2 Centenary Sprint Cup before a lacklustre fifth in the G2 Sprint Cup last time out. Belying his name, Lucky Bubbles, Lui’s catchword for his season was “unlucky”.
Hugh Bowman and Lucky Bubbles head for the line, picture Liesl King
“It has been a tough year,” Lui said. “He’s tried so hard but he’s been a little bit unlucky, he struck trouble in a couple of his runs and so he should have won one or two more.
Lucky Bubbles had been the regular ride of Brett Prebble, who partnered the galloper at all 16 of his Hong Kong starts before Sunday and who had been aboard the horse in trackwork 175 mornings this season alone. However, connections opted to switch to Prebble’s compatriot Hugh Bowman, with the Sydney-based rider having his first sit aboard Lucky Bubbles on Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve said all along I don’t think Brett did anything wrong, and I must thank him – he has done so much work with his horse,” Lui said. “He has looked after the horse and has treated him so well. However, Hugh has a different riding style and I think the horse just needed a little bit of a change. He had a good draw too, which helped today.”
Lucky Bubbles, who started 3.6 second favourite, settled handier than he had at recent starts this season, reverting to the handy tactics that had been employed with good effect in victories last season. Bowman had the Sebring gelding sitting fourth on the rail, tracking leaders Peniaphobia and Dashing Fellow.
“From the good draw and with a predictable race pattern, I was able to be where I anticipated I’d be just behind the speed,” Bowman said. “The horse was able to travel comfortably within himself in that position because the pace was not frantic.”
At the entrance to the straight, Lucky Bubbles was momentarily held up behind the leaders, but a clear run emerged at the 250m when Dashing Fellow shifted out. Bowman pushed the gelding through, and he sprinted strongly near the inside to hold off a raft of challengers out wide.
“I was a little concerned about where I’d go at the top of the straight because there wasn’t a clear passage,” Bowman said, “but I didn’t have many options other than to wait a while. With a little bit of patience, a run presented itself and we all know the tenacity and toughness this horse has. He proved it today and he made luck for himself.”
It was a first G1 win for Lui, who had won two G2 races with Lucky Bubbles – the Sprint Cup last season and the Premier Bowl this term – as well as the HKG2 Hong Kong Derby Trial (1800m), now the Classic Cup, with Hello Pretty in 2006.
“I still can’t believe it, this is so exciting,” an emotional Lui said post-race. “I have always known he had the talent but it is great to see him get that win, he deserved that. Hopefully it is not the last one for him!”
Lui said that Lucky Bubbles would now rest ahead of next season, but earlier plans to potentially start the 2017/18 term in Japan in October have been shelved.
“He’s a lightly framed horse and I worry that he might not be the type who would handle travelling very well,” the trainer said. “I had thought the Sprinters’ Stakes at Nakayama could be a good race, but instead I think we will target the local races, the same as this season. He will go to the two G2 races before the big international race in December, the Hong Kong Sprint.”
Even-money favourite Mr Stunning filled the bridesmaid role this year. The promising four-year-old came with a late burst down the outside after striking trouble mid-stretch but failed by a neck to reel in Lucky Bubbles.
“It was a fantastic run,” rider Joao Moreira said of the John Size-trained gelding. “He was shying away from Not Listenin’tome and that cost him the win, but overall the race was beautiful looking to the future.”
John Moore-trained Not Listenin’tome finished third, a half-length behind Lucky Bubbles, with Size’s Thewizardofoz in fourth. The race time was 1m 8.96s.
Lucky Bubbles (AUS), picture Liesl King