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Chief Journalist David Morgan breaks down the 2022-23 Hong Kong season, which concluded under threat of typhoon at Sunday's Season Finale at Sha Tin.
Hong Kong racing is a charmed beast at times. Typhoon Talim threatened Sunday’s 2022-23 season finale, yet despite the lashing rain, racing went ahead under a T8 warning; the sport was all done before the worst of the storm hit the ‘Fragrant Harbour’ on Monday morning, closing schools and even the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Racing closed out in fitting fashion with the season’s two main men, John Size and Zac Purton, teaming up in the last race with the smart prospect Golden Express, a four-year-old on an upward curve. The post-race festivities brought the customary throwing of plushies to moshing fans jostling for a freebie, and face masks were not mandatory.
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It was a far cry from the Covid-cloud days of September when the season kicked off still under pandemic restrictions, more than three years after they came into force (face masks would remain a must until February this year). Back then, participants were frazzled in the fudge of being shut off from the world and stifled under tight controls.
The season brought high points (as well as low) and much-needed new stars, as Hong Kong racing rolled on, making the Covid days just a bad memory. We take a look at the season’s five standout achievements, as well as the low point that saw two jockeys sent packing.
When California Spangle defeated Golden Sixty by a neck in the G1 Hong Kong Mile last December, it could have been a signal that the superstar’s dominant days were over. Oh, those of little faith.
Like all genuinely great champions, Golden Sixty bounced back under the training of Francis Lui and the jockeyship of Vincent Ho. He put California Spangle back in his box when winning the G1 Stewards’ Cup next time, stalled the Romantic Warrior hype when edging a thriller in the G1 Hong Kong Gold Cup, and showed he’s still the king with an impressive win in the G1 Champions Mile.
All of that ensured he became the first horse to land Horse of the Year three times. If only he had travelled, taken on the Japanese on their home turf, and perhaps elevated his legacy far beyond that of a one-track hero.
There would have been a deeper, longer, more satisfying draw on one of Michael Chang’s famous fat cigars after the trainer welcomed Lady’s Choice to the winner’s arch at Sha Tin on July 7. It was ‘only’ a Class 4 but for Chang it was a career-saver.
The 61-year-old was sitting on two strikes for failing to meet HKJC performance criteria but Lady’s Choice ensured one of Sha Tin’s most popular trainers will continue on.
Chang is most famous as the trainer of the high-class sprinter Rich Tapestry, and is the only Hong Kong handler to win a race in the US. Less than nine years after Rich Tapestry’s G1 win at Santa Anita (the gelding was a two-time winner in Dubai too) Chang’s celebrations after his benchmark-reaching win were every bit the match of those big days on the world stage.
Manfred Man has a champion in his stable. That’s not something most people would have envisaged from the stock middle-ranker, but the 65-year-old has handled the new star of Hong Kong’s speed division quite impeccably, even though the plug was pulled on what would have been an audacious assault on the G1 Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo.
As it was, the Kiwi-bred gelding evolved from a domestic 98-rated Class 1 climber to a 131-rated triple G1-winner to give the waning sprint division such much-needed star quality.
The season brought eight wins from 10 starts and Lucky Sweynesse even ended the campaign equal with Golden Sixty on an international rating of 125, to sit co-third in the IFHA’s world’s best rankings.
But, most importantly of all, the four-year-old’s high-profile successes ensured Man was granted an unexpected extension to his career beyond the age of 65.
A 12th trainer’s championship was finally in John Size’s clutches when the season closed out, a tally that took the Australian beyond the late, great George Moore whose record of 11 titles was set in 1985.
Size won titles eight to eleven in four consecutive seasons up to 2019, but was outpointed in the last three campaigns by Ricky Yiu, Caspar Fownes, and last season his former assistant Frankie Lor. This time he pulled out an array of typical stable improvers that reeled off the wins as they ascended the grades. His 79 wins at the season’s end was 12 more than the best of the rest.
The 69-year-old has had a career of incredible achievements in Hong Kong, and topping Moore’s 11 titles (in 22 seasons) is a towering high point. All that is lacking from Size’s CV is a bona fide outstanding champion to put the icing on his superb career.
It’s hard to look past Zac Purton’s sixth Hong Kong premiership as the headliner in the highlights reel. Granted, the title looked to be his for the taking as far back as the autumn when Joao Moreira’s injury troubles and subsequent departure left the Australian as far and away the standout rider.
He duly raced to the fastest 50 in Hong Kong history, snatching back that record from his Brazilian rival. But after Purton declared his intent to beat Moreira’s epic tally of 170 wins, things became less smooth; Hugh Bowman’s arrival and success, and the continuing rise of Vincent Ho, were just two factors that made the task tougher, and then there was the ongoing injuries he had to deal with throughout the season.
He got there though and extended the number to a mighty 179. Throw in his Group 1 exploits on Lucky Sweynesse and California Spangle, too, and a couple of Group 1 wins in Australia, and it’s been a tough campaign of exceptional achievements for the man from Coffs Harbour.
Ricky Yiu gets a nod for his handling of the star four-year-old Voyage Bubble. The gelding was a 10-1 shot when he won the Hong Kong Classic Mile in January, flopped in the Classic Cup next time, then gave Yiu his first Hong Kong Derby victory as an unheralded 45-1 chance.
Meanwhile, Vincent Ho had another season of advancement as he posted a career-best 96 wins, suggesting that he could well pass the century mark next season if he can build on another summer riding in Japan and Britain.
Hong Kong racing has been short on numbers in the elite bracket in recent seasons but the unbeaten Dream Winner was prominent among the young guns as a potential star in the making with three oh-so-easy wins down the straight.
There aren’t enough Hong Kong runners competing overseas these days so it was great to see Douglas Whyte take his stable star Russian Emperor to the Middle-East in February for a big win in Qatar.
The long bans handed out to Silvestre de Sousa and Vagner Borges in May came as a shock to many Hong Kong racing watchers and must rank as the season’s lowest point. While Borges had struggled to make inroads in his Hong Kong career, De Sousa was rattling along with 45 wins and his mounts had won HK$75.5 million in prize money when both riders were pulled into an inquiry.
De Sousa was banned for 10 months for facilitating Borges having an interest in a bet, and Borges was banned for 12 months.
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