Tokyo coup Ultra special for HK
Patrick Allen in Tokyo
Hong Kong has stamped itself as the sprint capital of the world and left trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai on cloud nine after Ultra Fantasy caused a major boilover to lead throughout and claim the Group One Sprinters Stakes (1,200m) at Nakayama racecourse in Tokyo yesterday.
Hong Kong jockey Alex Lai Hoi-wing controlled the tempo from the outset on Ultra Fantasy before stealing a winning break up the rise to prevail in a nail-biting finish over Centaur Stakes winner Dasher Go Go.
The runner-up was later relegated to fourth for causing interference to San Carlo at the 300-metre mark, but for the dying seconds of the race Lai wasn't the only one on the edge of his seat.
'I was jumping up and down and going crazy trying to cheer him home,' Yiu said. 'He jumped as well as usual, he got to the lead like usual and there was really no excitement until the last 50 metres. But when he came up the hill in front, I was just hoping and hoping that he could hang on over the last few strides.'
It was a sweet victory for Yiu, who has tried many times to bring his star galloper Sacred Kingdom to Japan - only to be thwarted by a hairline fracture to the gelding's near-fore sesamoid prior to the 2008 Sprinters Stakes, a foot injury in 2009 and the severe bout of colic which almost claimed his life in March.
Ultra Fantasy was also meant to race in the Group One Takamatsunomiya Kinen in March, but also had to abort the trip after the trouble experienced by his stablemate on the tarmac when the pair were being loaded for the flight.
'It feels great, it's the first time I've actually got a horse to race in Japan, and I'm really thrilled that he has shown his best form,' Yiu said.
'I have two very good sprinters in my stable, both are very highly rated and I'm sure both would be competitive anywhere in the world. The only problem for Ultra Fantasy is that he has to keep racing Sacred Kingdom at home.
'We really love sushi though, so perhaps we will keep coming.'
Ultra Fantasy was the forgotten runner in yesterday's event - won in 2005 by Hong Kong's greatest horse Silent Witness - with both the Hong Kong and Japanese public allowing him to start at 30-1, but a brilliant jump, an easy lead and a bold kick up the three-metre rise in the Nakayama straight left some red faces for those who had written him off.
'We knew we had to ride him the same as always if he was to win,' Yiu said. ''Whenever he has performed well at home, he has led on the rails and kicked into the straight.
'The most interesting part about this race was whether he would handle the uphill rise in the straight - and we could only leave that up to the horse to tell us.''
Ultra Fantasy's owner, Lam Tai-fai, a member of the Legislative Council, said he never expected the horse to win.
'No doubt today is a wonderful day,' owner Lam Tai-fai said. 'I'm very pleased with the result obviously, but it has been a great trip to Japan overall, and all credit must go to Ricky and Alex who have done a marvellous job with the horse.
'I expected the horse to run well but I never expected him to win. We had the luck today and a great performance from Alex helped us get over the line.'
Fellow Hong Kong sprinter Green Birdie was sent out as $3.20 favourite on the back of his impressive second to Dasher Go Go in the Centaur Stakes at Hanshin at his first start in Japan last month.
The Caspar Fownes-trained galloper was left racing tight between runners however, and was unable to make up the required ground and finished seventh.
'His form was brilliant leading into the race, and he should have finished closer with a clear run,' beaten jockey Mark Du Plessis said.