The DBS x Manulife Million Challenge comes to a close on Wednesday at Happy Valley and there are sure to be fireworks with the three top contenders all in action and shooting for the HK$650,000 first prize.
The annual DBS x Manulife Million Challenge is a points-based contest for horses competing in races rated Class 3 and above at Happy Valley, with 15 points for a win, six points for second, four for finishing third and three for fourth. This season's HK$1 million competition commenced on Sept. 11, 2019.
Shining Ace heads to the finale in pole position with 53.5 points; Gentle Breeze in second has 45 points, while Flying Quest currently sits third on 43 points.
Wednesday's winner's check has been a long-time aim for Ricky Yiu with his galloper, Gentle Breeze but the 5-year-old faces a stiff test as he aims to prove his worth over 1200m in the Class 1 Blue Pool Handicap and overtake Shining Ace - only a win will do.
"He's trying hard to win the Million Challenge and get the trophy because we've targeted this for a long time, especially as tomorrow night is his last chance," Yiu said.
The Foxwedge gelding has climbed an impressive 27 points in the handicap this season, winning three of his six starts under Matthew Chadwick who takes the reins again. But they all came over 1000m.
Gentle Breeze's 1200m form reads for one placing from six attempts but Yiu quashed any apprehensions about his galloper's ability to handle the added furlong.
"There are no concerns about the 1200 (meters) especially the way he finishes off his races over 1000 (meters), so hopefully he can do something for us - as he has been very loyal to me," Yiu said.
"He still hasn't done anything over 1200 (meters) but he has a good draw (gate one) and he's holding his form so I expect he'll run well. He did a bit too much work early last time and the draw wasn't very good."
The five-year-old sports the silks made famous by Yiu's World Champion Sprinter and Hong Kong Horse of the Year (2009/10) Sacred Kingdom.
Yiu knows the feeling of winning the DBS x Manulife Million Challenge, having secured the 2016/17 edition with Ambitious Dragon's half-brother, Packing Dragon.
"We target the Million Challenge for owners, it's a good bonus but especially as Happy Valley tends to be slightly weaker fields than Sha Tin," Yiu said.
"Gentle Breeze has done well, he's won three this season and five overall since arriving to Hong Kong as a PPG (Privately Purchased Griffins), especially at the Valley."
Chadwick agreed that Gentle Breeze should be able to handle the rise to 1200m, especially now with the inside draw on his side.
"The wide gate last start compounded the problems; we felt the 1200 (metres) he could get because he's shown that he's versatile - he can sit handy and he can also sit off them and show his turn of foot," Chadwick said.
"He had to work overly hard early as there was just too much pace inside of him and he just had to use a bit more energy to cross them from the wide gate."
The gelding faces a hot field including stablemate Speedy King (124 lbs), as well as Fat Turtle (133 lbs), last year's DBS x Manulife Million Challenge champion Country Star (128 lbs), Amazing Star (121 lbs), Gunnison (120 lbs) and Waldorf (115 lbs).
The 29-year-old rider has been impressed with the gelding's quick turnaround of form this season and remains optimistic ahead of Wednesday's test as he seeks an easier run in transit.
"He's a very consistent, honest horse--he's found his feet nicely this season and he's come back more settled as we have always thought that it wasn't necessary for him to lead and that if he took a sit he should be relaxed enough to see it out," Chadwick said.
"Unfortunately last time he drew fairly wide and we had to use that extra gear to get him across and against a horse (Amazing Star) whose front running style is to jump and run along--it just dragged a fair bit out of us and with the heavier weight it compounded all of the misery on top of us."
A winner of five from 20, the gelding faces Class 1 for the first time as looks to secure the DBS x Manulife Million Challenge for connections.
"There are a lot of horses running again and it looks like the standings can change a lot depending on the results," Chadwick added.
The John Size-trained Million Challenge leader Shining Ace (130 lbs) tackles the night's finale, the Class 3 King Kwong Handicap (1200m), with Chad Schofield in the plate for the first time.
"He's obviously very consistent and very honest as his record shows--I trialed him last week on the dirt and he trialed brilliantly, he felt really good, he's in great form and he's made his way nicely up the ratings this season with his good record and hopefully it can continue," Schofield said.
The Australian-bred gelding's consistency has come to the fore this campaign having finished in the top three in each of his eight runs, including two wins, one of which he shared in a thrilling dead-heat with Aurora Pegasus.
"I'm a touch disappointed with the draw as he drew wide, but hopefully there's a lot of speed, they split up and then we can slot in somewhere," Schofield said.
"It'd be great if I can get them the points they need but either way, I'll be my doing best whether he's in the challenge or not."
The third of three with a chance of winning the DBS x Manulife Million Challenge is Flying Quest (128 lbs) who will line up against a field of 11 in the Class 3 Sing Woo Handicap (1650m) with Frenchman Tony Piccone booked to ride.
"He's a Happy Valley specialist, his record over the 1650 (meters) there is very good, he just keeps turning up every time - he's matured and got better at handling the pressure of Hong Kong racing very well," trainer David Hall said.
Hall's galloper has won twice at the Valley this term and has seen his rating climb to a career-high mark of 80.
"Once you've had a couple of runs there and you're amongst the placings the Million Challenge starts to take you attention, that you might be able to target some extra prize money, but it's definitely been in the back of the owners' minds all the way through," Hall said.
"We backed him (Flying Quest) up there the other day hoping he might get a win as I expected this race would be a bit stronger but he still got some points last time which was good but obviously all the competitors are running tomorrow night, so how it plays out will be interesting. But if he can get amongst the placings again and rack up a few points then he might be able to hold his spot in the top three."
The DBS x Manulife Million Challenge presentation ceremony will be held later this season at a date to be announced.
Wednesday's nine-race card kicks off at 5:45 a.m. PT / 2:45 a.m. with the Class 5 Yuk Sau Handicap (1800m).
HAPPY VALLEY FREE PICKS - February 26
Race 1: Yuk Sau Handicap
#6 Mcmunigal led and won well two starts ago and since then he's remained in sound enough form to suggest he can replicate that run again. The tight turning nuances of Happy Valley will suit his forward style of racing and breaking from the inside draw should allow Jack Wong to find the front with ease. He's the one to beat.
#3 Garlic Yeah has mixed his form this term but should be more than fit with eight runs under his belt. He has returned to a competitive mark and this contest appears suitable.
#1 Speedy Wally steps down Class 5 which helps. He's a five time winner at Happy Valley and with Zac Purton engaged here, he's capable of adding a sixth.
#12 Young Glory gets in light and from the good gate he can figure with the right run under Lyle Hewitson.
Race 1: #6 Mcmunigal, #3 Garlic Yeah, #1 Speedy Wally, #12 Young Glory
Race 2: Wang Tak Handicap
#4 Colonel has hit the ground running since commencing his career in Hong Kong, impressing in each of his three outings including a narrow three-quarter-length defeat two starts ago. He gets the services of the in-form Alexis Badel and if he can overcome the awkward gate, he's the one they all have to run down.
#2 All Wongchoy has led and won over this course and distance before. He has drawn to find the front here and he could prove difficult to reel in with Blake Shinn sticking aboard.
#1 Gunnar gets the services of Victor Wong back from his lengthy injury spell. He's a Class 4 winner previously and the good gate should afford him every opportunity, especially with Victor Wong's 5lb claim in play.
#5 Ares grabbed fifth on debut. Zac Purton retains the ride and he's worth keeping safe.
Race 2: #4 Colonel, #2 All Wongchoy, #1 Gunnar, #5 Ares
Race 3: Yik Yam Handicap
#4 Let's Take It Easy narrowly missed last time out. He closed strongly that day over this course and distance and arguably was unlucky not to have won. Zac Purton hops in the plate now which commands respect and if he can offset the awkward gate, he's going to take beating.
#2 Dor Dor is a winner in two of his last starts. He's in career-best form and appears to still have a number of ratings points up his sleeve.
#1 Happy Warrior is consistent as ever and as a Class 4 winner this term he deserves respect.
#6 Tung Wah Glory hasn't been too far away in both of his Hong Kong outings and further improvement here is projected.
Race 3: #4 Let's Take It Easy, #2 Dor Dor, #1 Happy Warrior, #6 Tung Wah Glory
Race 4: Village Handicap
#11 Oversubscribed narrowly missed last start. Matthew Poon hops back in the plate due to Joao Moreira's suspension and from the inside gate he rates as the leading player if he doesn't find himself too far away throughout. He should be able to do very little work from that draw and with a hot tempo expected, he can rattle over the top of them. The wide gate beat
#6 Dr Proactive last time out but although he has drawn wide again, the hope is that they take him back to capitalize from a fast pace which could be set. Although he has only won once, he's clearly returned in excellent form this term and with the right run he won't be too far away.
#3 Very Sweet Orange is one of those who is likely to roll forward. He can stick on for prize money if he doesn't go too hard too soon.
#5 Winning Ways finally pieced it all together at start number 22. Zac Purton retains the ride here and this is a similar calibre contest to last.
Race 4: #11 Oversubscribed, #6 Dr Proactive, #3 Very Sweet Orange, #5 Winning Ways
Race 5: Shan Kwong Handicap
#6 Time To Celebrate finally draws a good gate and from there he's capable of positioning himself close to the speed. He struggled to find room in the straight last time out and subsequently faded to 10th, but with a clean run that day he potentially finishes near the top three. This race is suitable and with the right run he can finally go on with it for the first time since February, 2019.
#1 Encouraging led all-the-way in a hot Class 1 field earlier this time, in doing so lowering that course record in the process at Sha Tin. He can roll forward for Zac Purton and may give them something to reel in.
#5 Good Standing has had issues across his career, ranging from lameness to a number of bleeds. Still, he's racing consistently enough to warrant respect, especially from the good gate.
#3 Fast Most Furious is looking to snap a run of two narrow defeats. His blistering best is up to this and he remains a winning option.
Race 5: #6 Time To Celebrate, #1 Encouraging, #5 Good Standing, #3 Fast Most Furious
Race 6: Tsui Man Handicap
#8 Giant Turtle has led and won over this course and distance previously. He figures to do the same again here with Victor Wong and 5lb claim applied and the step back up in trip to 11 furlongs from the good gate will suit.
#7 More Than A Horse flew home last start to grab fourth. He gets up in trip here which looks ideal and if he can handle the city course at his first try, he's going to be in the finish.
#1 Tashidelek has his limits but this is still a very suitable race. He has narrowly missed in his last three and he could be ready to atone for those performances here.
#9 Magnetism has won two out of his last three attempts. Lyle Hewitson takes over and from the inside gate he remains a chance, depending on if he has anymore ratings points in hand.
Race 6: #8 Giant Turtle, #7 More Than A Horse, #1 Tashidelek, #9 Magnetism
Race 7: Blue Pool Handicap
#7 Gentle Breeze has been a Happy Valley star all term, thrice winning from six attempts at the city circuit. He faded to eighth last start after doing a fair bit of work early and from there faced the breeze and subsequently dropped out. His form prior warrants respect and a return to his best cannot be discounted, especially after drawing pole position.
#8 Waldorf recaptured his near best last start, rattling home for second over this course and distance. He's a four-time course and distance winner and with even luck he could test these.
#4 Amazing Star is looking for his fourth consecutive win. He has gone from Class 4 to Class 1 across three starts and although he's a super talent, this might just be one step too far, especially against a hot contest such as this one.
#2 Country Star loves the Valley as a five-time course and distance winner. He's returning to his best and this race is well within his grasp.
Race 7: #7 Gentle Breeze, #8 Waldorf, #4 Amazing Star, #2 Country Star
Race 8: Sing Woo Handicap
#8 Flying Quest is a two-time winner already this term. He has since placed in his most recent two and has caught the eye in each. This is a difficult contest but he maps to get the right run for Tony Piccone.
#5 Dances With Dragon makes his debut for Caspar Fownes after transferring from the Peter Ho yard. Interesting booking with Zac Purton taking over the riding duties and from the inside draw with the visor applied first time, he could be ready to turn his form around.
#2 Circuit Glory snatched third last time out. Expect he rolls forward with Chad Schofield and from the soft draw he should do little work early to find that forward spot.
#10 Cinquante Cinq is a supreme talent who is a Class 3 winner already across his short eight-start career. This is suitable especially following his dominant display last time out, albeit against a rather mediocre field.
Race 8: #8 Flying Quest, #5 Dances With Dragon, #2 Circuit Glory, #10 Cinquante Cinq
Race 9: King Kwong Handicap
#1 Highly Proactive dug deep to tally his second win last time out, fighting back on the rail after being headed early. He sits on the cusp of Class 2 and if he can overcome the wide gate, he's going to prove tough to beat.
#6 Shining Ace is a model of consistency with 12 top three finishes from 17 attempts, including four wins. He has yet miss the top three this term and if he's continued to hold his condition, he's going to be in the finish once again.
#4 Sunny Boy has largely struggled across three starts this term. Still, the blinkers and tongue-tie have been applied to sharpen him up and if so, he could be thereabouts.
#2 Cue The Music is capable snatching some prize money, especially as a winner already this campaign.
Race 9: #1 Highly Proactive, #6 Shining Ace, #4 Sunny Boy, #2 Cue The Music