Vincent Ho repaid the faith of his old master with a signpost victory aboard Rise High in the G3 Premier Plate Handicap (1800m) at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Rise High overcame top-weight of 133lb and a hefty bump at the top of the straight to post a dominant length and a quarter victory from Seasons Bloom (130lb), with Citron Spirit (128lb) third.
“They just got my hind quarters and I got a bit unbalanced. I waited and balanced him up and got going again,” Ho said after landing the final Group race of the Hong Kong season.
“I knew the horse was strong. Today he travelled a lot stronger than I expected and he was in a lovely position in midfield so I knew he’d take off. I let him start to pick up at the 600 (metres) and he has a great turn-of-foot.”
Rise High and Vincent Ho, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Trainer Caspar Fownes could have turned to Zac Purton for the feature contest but instead stayed loyal to his former apprentice while the all-conquering champion watched the 11-runner contest from the jockeys’ room.
“He could have easily taken me off after we ran second last time,” Ho said, referencing Rise High’s fast finish behind Hong Kong’s top stayer Exultant in the G1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup (2400m).
“Zac would love to be on him and I’m very grateful that (Caspar) kept me on, and also it’s my first Group race win for my old boss so I’m very happy,” he added.
Fownes acknowledged that he could indeed have turned to Purton, who has a record of three wins from seven rides on the Irish import.
“Zac is a superstar, he’s proven he’s the best rider here, along with Joao (Moreira); he’s a great jockey, especially in big-race situations but the opportunity was there for Vincent to retain the ride,” the handler said.
“Vincent did nothing wrong last time and even the fact that Zac was available, it wasn’t the right thing to do. Zac’s committed to Exultant going forward but he’s won three races on Rise High so it’s there, both boys have had success on the horse now.”
Fownes and Ho go back a long way. The rider, 29, cut his teeth under Fownes’ tutelage and the trainer has always provided opportunities to the former champion apprentice who is in line to receive this season’s Tony Cruz Award as the leading home grown rider – his current tally for the term is a personal best 52.
“I’m extremely happy for Vincent,” Fownes continued. “He’s a great kid, I love him, he’s worked hard his whole life and in the early days when he was my apprentice he was a great kid and a pleasure to work with. He deserves all the success he’s having right now and I’m happy that he’s on that horse getting that result and hopefully we’ll get a Group 1 with them together.”
Fownes was brimming with confidence post-race and justifiably so. Since the Premier Plate switched to a June slot three years ago, two horses have prevailed under top-weight – Helene Paragon and Exultant. Both went on to Group 1 glory the next season.
“Exultant looks to be a superstar but I really believe this horse is the next big thing here!” Fownes said.
“He’s a star, I really believe that and I really hope I get the chance to travel with him because I think he’s that good. He’s just learning his trade now. Once everything falls into place – it’s just starting to come, he’s starting to take a chill pill, in the yard he’s starting to go ‘you know what, I’m the dude’ and it’s fun days ahead.”
The day featured a Group 3 double bill and it was Grant van Niekerk and Frankie Lor who teamed for success in the Premier Cup Handicap (1400m) with the progressive Flying Thunder (114lb). The four-year-old British import quickened smartly to take the spoils by three quarters of a length from Time To Celebrate (122lb).
Van Niekerk bagged his first treble in Hong Kong. Having taken the Class 5 opener, the Tate’s Cairn Handicap (1200m) on the Caspar Fownes-trained 13/1 shot Nice Fandango, the South African landed the Class 3 Eagle’s Nest Handicap (1600m) on the John Moore-trained Earth Trilogy.
Purton enjoyed a rocket run on young sprinting sensation Voyage Warrior (133lb) in the Class 3 Ma On Shan Handicap (1000m) to take home a treble.
“It was a good effort,” Purton said of the top-weight, who took his career tally to three wins and a second from four starts, all down the 1000m straight.
“He had to carry top-weight and Look Eras really served it up to him through the mid stages, so he had to absorb all that pressure as well. I thought he did a good job,” Purton added.
The rider had the leg-up for the first time today, having inflicted the gelding’s only defeat the time before atop the highly-regarded Thanks Forever, who won that race in receipt of 13lb.
Yiu was delighted to see his charge regain the winning thread: “He gradually rolled to the outside, he didn’t even pull his stick – the winning jockey knows what kind of car he’s driving, it’s as simple as that!”
And the trainer answered in the affirmative when asked if he would pitch Voyage Warrior into Group races in the first half of next season, should the Australian-bred continue to deliver.
“I would,” he said. “He’ll be four next season and there are some big races, feature races coming up that I really want him to participate in. I’ll gradually move him up to 1200 metres, it’s about time to run him round the bend, that’s the plan. He’s done well as a three-year-old, it’s been a long season and he won't run again this season.”
Yiu claimed a brace when Aldo Domeyer drove Bellagio to snare section one of the Class 4 Piper’s Hill Handicap (1400m).
Chicken Dance for 150
Purton had earlier bagged his 150th win of the campaign when Chicken Dance took the Class 4 Kau To Shan Handicap (1200m) by three and a quarter lengths. That followed a score for the champion jockey atop the Dennis Yip-trained Ho Ho Feel in the 2000m Class 4.
Trainer Paul O’Sullivan had made no secret of his regard for Chicken Dance in recent months and the three-year-old obliged in style at start three.
“He came out and brained them, so he’s going to be a nice horse next year,” the handler said. “Virtually from day one he looked like he was better than average and I thought today, if he was going to justify my opinion of him, he had to do that.
“He’s another one from the stable in New Zealand. He’s a nice horse, a big, scopey horse.”
O’Sullivan was quick to distance himself from the naming of the Hinchinbrook bay, who runs in the colours of A Wonderful World Syndicate.
“I didn’t advise them on that name!” he said, grinning. “Evidently, when you do the chicken dance, as the song goes on it gets faster and faster and faster, so that was the theory behind it. Their grandkids wanted to call it that, so when they’re telling granddad what to call the horse how are they going to say no?”
Jockey Ben So took his season’s tally to five wins in section two of the Class 4 Piper’s Hill Handicap (1400m). It came in the form of an accomplished last-to-first drive on the David Hall-trained High Rev.
Umberto Rispoli denied Van Niekerk a four-timer when delivering the David Ferraris-trained Charizard late to take the concluding Class 3 Amah Rock Handicap (1400m).
Hong Kong racing continues at Happy Valley on Wednesday, 26 June.
Chicken Dance and Zac Purton, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club