Telecom Brothers (113lb) has the stage to himself and a new rider as he bids to steal top spot in a thrilling Hong Kong Airlines Million Challenge Finale at Happy Valley this Wednesday.
Competition for a series lasting five and a half months based on points accrued in races of Class 3 and above at the city venue has been intense, with the lead changing hands frequently and John Size playing a central role.
The champion trainer has attacked with a pair of his most progressive youngsters - and currently occupies the top two places with Country Star (66 points) and Red Warrior (64) - but both are bypassing the concluding night.
Red Warrior chases a Derby place in Sunday's Hong Kong Classic Cup instead, leaving the Me Tsui-trained Telecom Brothers (55) with the chance to secure 15 more points and a HK$650,000 bonus for his owner if he makes a winning Class 1 debut in the Happy Valley Trophy (1200m).
Tsui is well aware that “only a win will do” if Telecom Brothers is to steal the prize but the four-year-old already has three Valley wins to his credit and lines up after a brave second to Country Star with Super Hoppy (114lb) close up in third over the course and distance two weeks ago.
In-form apprentice Victor Wong used his valuable claim to telling effect for all of Telecom Brothers' previous Valley victories but a careless riding ban means Keith Yeung steps in.
He does so at his minimum weight but feels the effort of getting down to 111lb once his local allowance is factored in could be worthwhile if Telecom Brothers can work his way inside from stall nine.
“Happy Valley is obviously his track and we’ve got the super-lightweight of 111, which I can make for a nice ride,” said Yeung. “Telecom Brothers is an honest horse with a lot of speed who battles every time.
“The bonus isn’t for me, but it’s a nice story and he’s definitely a decent ride to get. He looks an easy ride with good gate speed so I’ll be looking for a good run if I can get him to the fence.”
Telecom Brothers chases the Million Challenge at the Valley, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Thinker on Dubai trail
The presence of Telecom Brothers and several other aggressive front runners in the Happy Valley Trophy is music to the ears of connections of Wishful Thinker (130lb), who could be Dubai bound next month if he can replicate his sole previous Valley effort.
Richard Gibson’s gelding stormed from last to first to land a Class 2 contest under Alexis Badel in November and has continued to thrive since, scoring over 1000m at Sha Tin before finishing a good third in the G3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy over the same distance.
Gibson acknowledged that Wishful Thinker needs to take another step forward to earn a place in the G1 Al Quoz Sprint (1200m) at Meydan on 30 March, while Badel is anxious to secure as smooth a run as possible in what promises to be a fast-run race.
“Wishful Thinker’s running style makes him an exciting horse to watch and also a very exciting horse to ride,” said the Frenchman ahead of the final Valley night of his latest winter spell in Hong Kong.
“A fast pace would be a good sign for me. Hopefully I can get lucky and have no traffic jams, but I know I am riding a very talented horse who has the capacity to run very well.”
Rise High at fighting weight
Caspar Fownes has a high opinion of Rise High (133lb) and is hoping the ex-Irish gelding can return from a spell refreshed for a highly competitive Shan Kwong Handicap (1650m).
Concerns about weight loss convinced Fownes that a break would be beneficial after running a smart third behind Simply Brilliant in the Class 1 Chevalier Cup in November, but a six-week spell at Conghua sees Rise High back to his fighting weight of 1089lb.
“He was ready to go to the races again when he started to drop a lot of body weight so I spoke to the owner and said ‘let’s give him more time’. He came good after we gave him a break last season and when he went to Conghua he put 50lb back on in a matter of weeks, which was just what I wanted to see,” he said.
“The race will strip him fitter as he’s been off for a while but he won a trial at the Valley nicely in December and he’s drawn well in stall four.”
Rise High (133lb) faces stern opposition from in-form horses such as Citron Spirit (133lb) and Insayshable (133lb), while Litterateur (120lb) and Circuit Glory (115lb) are proven Valley performers who receive plenty of weight.
The exciting nine-race card also features the Size-trained rising star Tornado Twist (130lb) who heads for a first run at the Valley off a quick-fire hat-trick at Sha Tin. He lines up in the finale, the Blue Pool Handicap (1200m), against the Tsui-trained Music Addition (131lb), an impressive course and distance winner last time.
The action starts at 6.45pm with the Class 4 Tsui Man Handicap (1000m).