The injury-enforced withdrawal of runaway Jockeys' Championship leader Douglas Whyte from tomorrow's season finale at Sha Tin has thrown the focus onto the battle for second and intensified the intrigue surrounding the three-way tussle for Horse of the Year.
Whyte will be crowned top jockey for the 12th straight time tomorrow with 107 wins, but his bruised shoulder did not respond sufficiently to treatment and he will be a spectator for the second straight meeting as Zac Purton attempts to break fellow Australian Brett Prebble's six-year stranglehold as runner-up.
Purton holds a one-win advantage over Prebble (63-62), but is more concerned about whether Royal Ascot victor Little Bridge will be announced Horse of the Year at a ceremony after the meeting. Little Bridge's fresh-in-the-mind King's Stand win last month makes him a slight favourite for top honours, but a strong case can be made for Lucky Nine and defending champion Ambitious Dragon.
'Everybody is talking about the Jockeys' Championship situation, so I am aware of it, but whether I run second or third isn't the biggest of deals. It's not as if it is a battle for first and second,' Purton said.
'But I do hope Little Bridge wins Horse of the Year. He was the only Hong Kong horse to win an overseas Group One this season. It's not easy to do and that has got to weigh heavily in his favour.
'He also won three more times at home - two Group Twos and a Group Three - and there was no one dominant horse that stood up and said they should be Horse of the Year.'
Both Lucky Nine and Ambitious Dragon could have clinched the award with one more Group One win, particularly if they had triumphed on foreign shores. Lucky Nine was left with two top-level victories, including the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint, to go with a host of unlucky placings.
The Caspar Fownes-trained sprinter-miler finished ahead of Little Bridge in all three of their head-to-head clashes, and got a push from one of the six people who will vote on the award, Jockey Club director of racing Bill Nader.
'He won the biggest sprint race of the year here. There's often a debate as to winning at home or on the road is of greater value, but in my mind there's no greater victory than winning the big race at home. So I give him extra credit for winning on international day, and he also won the Queen's Silver Jubilee, which is the biggest Group One at 1,400m in Hong Kong.
'On the downside, he wasn't able to get that elusive third Group One victory, even though he travelled a lot and he travelled well.'
When Ambitious Dragon won the Citibank Gold Cup in February to give him back-to-back Group Ones, to go with a dominant first-up display in the National Day Cup (1,400m), most would have taken short odds about Tony Millard's horse repeating as champion. But failures in his three subsequent starts, all when well fancied in Group Ones, have even Millard conceding the crown.
'Little Bridge won the Group One at Royal Ascot and, as much as I would like Dragon to win it, I think any Group One at Royal Ascot counts for a lot, having travelled there myself. He deserves to win it,' he said.