Rider Joao Moreira sparked the jockeys’ championship battle to life with a quickfire early double at Happy Valley on Wednesday night, but title leader Zac Purton’s victory on Doctor Geoff in the night’s feature ensured that he still holds a commanding lead in the title race with five meetings left to go in the season.
The Tony Cruz-trained Doctor Geoff produced the star performance of the night with his triumph in the Class 2 Manawatu Racing Club Challenge Trophy Handicap (1800m). The Irish galloper, a two-time winner at Naas for trainer Ger Lyons pre-import, had placed at four of his first seven Hong Kong starts but had not been able to break his local maiden.
That changed in impressive fashion tonight as Doctor Geoff raced clear for a three and a quarter length success under Purton. Another former Lyons trainee, the John Size-prepared Insayshable, filled the runner-up stall with Moreira aboard.
“It was a pretty shallow race in terms of depth, when you consider the form of the other horses,” Purton said. “Our main danger hasn’t raced for quite some time (and was) first-up over 1800m. My horse has been knocking on the door, so we just needed to get the right run in the race, which we did get. He won nicely.”
Doctor Geoff had finished in the placings behind the Caspar Fownes-trained Rise High at his last two starts, with Purton riding Rise High on both occasions.
“I think Rise High has probably got a little bit more quality than this horse,” Purton said. “He’s got more size and scope about him as well. This horse is going to do a good job though, he’s only small and he still does a few things wrong in his races – he’s on and off the bit, he wanders in and out, so he can still improve himself a little bit. He’s going to need to though if he’s going to take the next step.”
The trophy success took Purton to 127 wins for the season, giving the Australian rider a four-win championship lead entering July, while Doctor Geoff was the first leg of a Cruz double; the handler later added the Class 3 Grass Island Handicap (1200m) with another former Irish galloper in Double Valentine, with Vincent Ho in the plate.
Earlier, Moreira made a bold statement to start the night with exciting wins aboard the David Hall-trained Penzance in the Class 5 Po Toi Handicap (2200m) and Size’s Jolly Bountiful in the Class 4 Peng Chau Handicap (1200m).
Neither horse looked likely to win until right on the line: Penzance produced a grinding effort to wear down the Matthew Chadwick-ridden Joy Plus Fun, while Jolly Bountiful only arrived in the last stride to grab Fantastic Fabio, ridden by Umberto Rispoli.
The Class 5 opener produced plenty of twists and turns, as 2200m races at Happy Valley often do. Hall believes that Penzance may become a mainstay of these races, with his pedigree – by Pentire out of a Zabeel mare – suggesting that even that trip may prove short of his best.
“I didn’t think he was going to win at any stage tonight, that’s for sure,” Hall said. “Obviously, when I saw the leader dash clear with the light weight, I thought he would be hard to run down. He battled it out really well though and, mentally, it could be a good thing for his confidence.
“It’s been hard work getting him to win. Mentally, he’s very hot, the Zabeel factor comes out there. He looks like a two-miler as a type and he doesn’t have much of a turn of foot, but in these distance races, there aren’t many here who can handle it so he could hold his own at the bottom of Class 4 over this trip.”
Moreira came within a neck of making it a treble, riding Sichuan Boss into second behind Karis Teetan and Megatron in the Class 4 Lantau Island Handicap (1650m).
Also breaking through for a first Hong Kong victory was the Paul O’Sullivan-trained Oriental Elite. The Star Witness four-year-old has always demonstrated ability, running the fastest final 400m over the Happy Valley 1000m in three years at his debut in January, and he sprinted powerfully under Douglas Whyte to record a three-quarter length victory.
“We dropped him back to the 1000m because he got a little bit keen last start,” O’Sullivan said. “A good gate helped him, his first five starts he drew wide and ran well given the circumstances. Dropping back to the 1000m, he was run off his feet a little bit but he wound up well and sprinted very strongly, so I think now that the penny is dropping, he could make it up to Class 3 next season.”
Trainer Danny Shum brought up his 50th win of the season with Cerefino, who won the Class 3 Lamma Island Handicap (1000m) with Alberto Sanna up top, while jockey Victor Wong’s 10-pound claim came to the fore aboard Don’t Miss in the closer, the Class 3 Cheung Chau Handicap (1650m).
Racing resumes at Sha Tin on Sunday (1 July) with a 10-race card, beginning at 1pm.