CHAMPION jockey Basil Marcus received the perfect boost for his International Cup date on Sunday when he swept the first half of the Happy Valley card last night - keeping alive his slim hopes of retaining the title.
The South African is gloriously riding the crest of a winning wave and a River Verdon victory in the $4.5 million Cup would be the perfect climax to his season, apart from keeping hold of his title.
And Marcus closed the gap to 10 winners on runaway leader Tony Cruz as a result of victories on L'Enjoleur (9-5 favourite) in the opener, 12-1 chance Upper Hand in Race Two and 5-2 favourite Pinch The Devil in the third event.
In a dramatic night's racing, the first winner saw trainer David Hill go to joint top of that championship for the first time in six years in Hongkong. But his stay on top lasted only four races until defending champion trainer John Moore saddled up Dragons Desert (10-1).
Moore now leads on 29 winners from Hill and Lawrie Fownes.
And Peter Ng Bik-kuen served fresh notice that he's not done with in the title battle by producing the 30-1 winner of the night's feature event, the Queen's Silver Jubilee Challenge Cup.
Picking up the silverware were connections of Call Sign, a less than illustrious son of the mighty Nijinsky in his efforts to date. But his all-the-way effort in the Class Two, 1,800-metre trophy race was exemplary and gave local rider Danny Lee a boost.He will shortly face an appeals board in an attempt to get a nine-day suspension set aside or reduced.
The other two Marcus winners were prepared by Ivan Allan who also served notice that he was firmly back in action. Allan had returned after a visit to the Sydney yearling sales and watched in satisfaction as unreliable Upper Hand cruised to success in the Class Five, 1,235-metre second event.
''I'm delighted for the owner because the horse has been disappointing. We left the blinkers off him tonight and he certainly seemed to appreciate that,'' said Allan.
Upper Hand made all and easily held off the belated and less than resolute challenge of odds-on favourite and topweight Big Apple (9-5).
Pinch The Devil was solidly following up on a good last-start second to above-average Octagon Star at the same venue. He won as he pleased by three lengths from Blazing Blade (5-1) in the Class Two longer sprint.
In a race of considerable drama, topweight Classic Warrior (6-1) missed the start hopelessly for claimer Raymond S. M. Tam and then, in the closing stages, came across from a wide out position to virtually pin Nigel Tiley and American Eagle (9-1) on the rails. Tiley came down and was then forced to forgo a winning ride in the final event. Tam ended up with a three-day ban.
The spare ride on bottomweight Best Runner in the Class Four, 1,650-metre nightcap went to the man who certainly makes most use of them - Australian star John Marshall.
He has picked up three late rides in as many days and won on the lot - but it was a close thing last night.
Marshall was lying in sixth position coming to the turn with the race looking to be between topweight Goodcape Treasure (7-1), second favourite Super Power (4-1) and improving Cash Bonus (10-1).
But Marshall, who looked in trouble for room, almost literally dived into a closing gap between Goodcape Treasure and a weakening Tung Feng. With whips flailing everywhere, Marshall lost his but Best Runner, well weighted, cleared away close home for a game win.
Cash Bonus finished a good second with 5-2 favourite Super Power never looking the winner. He finished third.
Said Marshall: ''I wasn't even that keen to ride the horse but they had nobody else. They certainly can make fools of you, I never thought he had that much of a chance.''