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A Harry Angel colt topped the operation’s purchases at the Inglis Premier Sale this week, days after Upper Bloodstock's Iffraaj filly Sakura Girl confirmed her Classic credentials.
It’s getting on for 20 years since old friends Ross Lao and Andy Lau first met. It happened when the fate of having similar surnames meant they were lined up side-by-side at the outset of a short-lived Hong Kong Jockey Club training programme implemented to develop assistant trainers.
Nowadays they are best known around the Australasian sales grounds as the driving forces behind Upper Bloodstock, and it has been a fruitful few days for the Hong Kong-rooted operation, which also involves their business partner Andrew Chan. Sakura Girl delivered a stakes success on the track in New Zealand on Saturday, then came three days at Inglis’ Oaklands Stables that yielded a dozen new purchases.
Sakura Girl’s win in the G3 Sunline Vase at Te Rapa for trainer Ben Foote, under Lau’s name, could yet lead the buyers – “We’re traders, really,” Lao said – to dabble in small scale breeding themselves.
“She’s going to the Oaks so hopefully she wins that,” Lao told Asian Racing Report. “The reason we bought the filly was that if a horse trials very well then generally we sell him, so I bought a filly deliberately so we could keep her to race.
“We’re trying to buy one or two fillies a year and go from there just to test it out; put her to race and if she’s good we might sell her as a broodmare or we might breed from her, but we’re new to that sector so we’ll play it step by step.”
That kind of flexible thinking is key to how Upper Bloodstock operates and while only time will tell how that part of the business works out, in the meantime, they are pleased to have left the Inglis Premier Yearling Sale’s four sessions (including the Showcase) with 12 horses bought for a total outlay of AU$1.79 million (US$776,000).
Chief among the new acquisitions was a AU$400,000 (US$263,300) Harry Angel half-brother to Victorian G2 winner Berkeley Square and Senor Toba – a Group 3 winner in Australia and Hong Kong – that could yet make it to Hong Kong himself if he progresses under the watch of Liam Howley. The colt was purchased in tandem with Upper Bloodstock client Gregory Ho.
Lot 288 – a stunning colt by Harry Angel (IRE) x Bahamas, offered by @millparkstud, sells to Hong Kong based horse trading business, Upper Bloodstock/Gregory Ho, for $400k at day 2 of the #InglisPremier pic.twitter.com/t234cXQ9SU
— Inglis (@inglis_sales) March 5, 2023
“Me and Greg actually tried to get the Capitalist, Lot 76 (sold to Gai Waterhouse, Adrian Bott and Kestrel Thoroughbreds for AU$460,000 [US$302,800]), but he liked this one too, so it worked out,” Lao said.
Upper Bloodstock was among a clutch of Hong Kong-listed buyers in Melbourne this week that bought 36 horses between them, and that tally does not include a AU$560,000 (US$368,650) Starpsangledbanner colt bought by agent Andrew Williams that might also be bound for Sha Tin.
Starspangledbanner is a sire in demand and Upper Bloodstock got one to themselves, a speedily-bred colt, at a cost of AU$380,000 (US$250,000).
Lao and Lau believe that being able to get out and see the horses in the flesh this year, now that Covid restrictions are a thing of the past, has been a huge help, especially for a team that puts in the hours on the ground before it parts with its cash.
“We normally do a lot of inspections before the sale,” Lau said. “We’ll arrive seven or ten days before the start, and, in the past, we’d try to see every colt in the catalogue ourselves, now we’ve trimmed it down to about three quarters and focus on those that meet our criteria.”
The two work closely together, ensuring a keen attention to detail.
“We actually record on video every horse that we see,” Lao said. “We put our comments on the video too, so we can go and review it any time, even if that’s two years later, to see what we thought about that horse. It’s a learning path as well for us, so just more data, I suppose. It’s hard work and having the two of us makes it so much easier.”
Lao’s background means he has worked for a couple of the biggest racing names in the Southern Hemisphere. After studying Equine Studies at Wagga, he was a work rider for both Bart Cummings and Gai Waterhouse.
“I rode plenty of their nice horses,” he said. “When you’re on the back of a good horse it’s different, they feel different, their mentality, everything about them is different to the bad or average ones. I rode Grand Armee, Excellerator, Dance Hero: Grand Armee had that massive big stride on him, he moved differently to other horses.”
Meanwhile, Lau got into racing as a teenage fan in Hong Kong and then studied at the University of New South Wales, “Next to Randwick racecourse,” he points out. The same year that he joined the HKJC training programme – the Club pulled the plug when the mafoo union objected that it would prevent its members from progressing right through the ranks – his father asked him to source a horse.
“That first horse I bought, in 2003, was trained at Sha Tin by Peter Ng, Pierre Ng’s father, a horse by Commands that was called Grand Commands; it got seven wins in its career,” he said.
Lau spent a decade working as an accountant for KPMG before joining the family business, while Lao spent some of that period as a cadet stipendiary steward at the Macau Jockey Club. The pair came together again to form Upper Bloodstock in 2014; that was a year after trainer Ricky Yiu purchased the high-class sprinter Blizzard out of the Inglis Premier Sale, to run for the Infinitude Syndicate of which Lau and Chan were a part.
These days, Lau and Lao back their own judgement in buying the young stock, and their approach is pragmatic and fluid, with decisions made depending on how variables play out.
“We’re kind of flexible with what we might do with the horses,” Lao said. “We can sell them at the breeze-up or trial them up for Hong Kong, or we can race them, but we’re traders more than racing owners. It all depends, we give them time off, give them a break, go through the breaking process and pre-training, go to the track and see where they’re at. If they’re sharp enough they can go to the Ready To Run Sale and if they need a bit more time we can always trial them up and get them ready for Hong Kong.
“And we don’t have to buy at the sales, because we don’t have to fill a list of PPG permits, we buy to trade, mainly. So how many horses we buy, it really depends on the market: if the market is strong, we’d normally buy less and if the market is weaker, we’d buy more.”
Their broad approach is emphasised not only in Sakura Girl – a NZ$260,000 (US$158,750) buy out of the 2021 New Zealand Bloodstock Ready To Run Sale – but also in the talented gelding Loosespender, winner of the G2 Waikato Guineas in New Zealand last month. Upper Bloodstock bought the son of Turn Me Loose out of Book 2 of the 2021 Karaka National Yearling Sale for only NZ$60,000 (US$36,600). The grey was sent to Foote’s stable, and Lau is registered as an owner along with the trainer and the Stride Racing Club.
With high quality horses in training and this latest batch of untried youngsters on their hands, the Upper Bloodstock project appears to be in a good place but Lao and Lau know better than to take things for granted.
“In this game, it’s tough,” Lao said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of taking a chance for your horse or the horse that you’ve picked to go and race in Hong Kong and prove yourself to be some sort of a judge, I suppose.
“It’s about being in a position to take that opportunity,” he added. “That’s why we’re flexible, we can put ourselves in the game.”
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