'I hope, in the return race, the Macau horses will give us 17 pounds,' jokes Arculli
The inaugural Hong Kong-Macau Trophy breathed new life into racing at Sha Tin yesterday with both Hong Kong citizens and hundreds of visiting racegoers jointly welcoming the triumph of Crown's Gift, Macau's first winner on this side of the Pearl River Delta.
The cheers from the public for the Joe Lau-trained Crown's Gift would have done justice to an international day winner and saw all Macau racing folk walking appreciably taller in the wake of the first of the goodwill races with Hong Kong.
It also represented a triumphant return to Sha Tin for British jockey Brett Doyle, who rode here previously under a retainer from Andy Leung Ting-wah.
Macau Jockey Club chairman Stanley Ho Hung-sun was at his diplomatic best and most gracious in victory.
'I am naturally delighted that a Macau horse has won and I hope the return race in Macau can be won by a Hong Kong-trained horse,' he said.
Hong Kong Jockey Club chairman Ronald Arculli chose instead to walk the line between complaint and good humour. 'I hope, in the return race, the Macau horses will give us 17 pounds,' he mused, a direct reference to the handicapping conditions of the event which gave the Macau-trained horses this concession on their domestic ratings.
Crown's Gift bounced well from barrier 12 and was caught wide early, before Doyle let him slide up to race outside race leader, the Tony Millard-trained Splendid Patrol.
The Macau galloper, who had never missed a place in 10 starts in the former Portuguese enclave, worked his way to the lead on the circle and it was obvious soon after straightening that he was the one setting the standard.
Crown's Gift, starting at $280, ultimately had three-quarters of a length to spare over the late-closing Gift (Robbie Fradd), with topweight River Dancer (Glyn Schofield) another half-length away third under his steadier of 133 pounds. Both second and third horses emerged from the John Size yard.
While Crown's Gift precipitated repeated rounds of backslapping among the visitors and their supporters, the other five Macau-trained contenders failed to find their best form and finished in the second half of the field.
The Michael Kent-trained Thunder Bird finished eighth, beaten almost six lengths, and jockey Michael Cahill thought he was probably feeling the ground, which was posted as good-to-firm. Analyst, winner of the 2003 Hong Kong Derby, weakened to ninth, Gibson ran 10th, Black Avalanche 12th and Royal Treasure 13th.
Lau, 39, originally trained at Ipoh in Malaysia before moving to Macau 15 years ago, when the racing industry there was in its infancy. He described the victory as his greatest thrill in racing.
'This has been wonderful ... absolutely brilliant,' Lau said. 'I know he hadn't run 1,600 metres before but there are no 1,600-metre races in Macau so it was impossible to say he couldn't manage it.
'I'm very grateful to my friend [former South China Morning Post racing journalist] Lawrence Wadey for suggesting and booking Brett Doyle for the horse,' Lau continued. 'Originally, Olivier Doleuze was to ride him but when he hurt his arm, I sought out Lawrence to help me.'
Doyle, on a hit-and-run mission to Hong Kong, said the uppermost thought in his mind had been ensuring his free-running mount would settle in the early stages.
'I'd only been on him once, trotting, so I didn't know that much about the horse but he goes a bit keen which was going to be an issue for getting the mile,' the Englishman said.
'I thought it better not to fight him and have him go crazy. So I let him run a bit and once he got up there, he settled better. Once he got to the front, he had a bit of a look ... it was a new track he hadn't seen before and I think that helped him to settle down. He kicked nicely when I went for him and when the second horse came at him, he found again.'
Size was pleased that Gift had begun his return to form after a long time in the doldrums. 'He's had a problem but it seems he's just about over that now and on his present [handicap] mark, he can probably win a race,' Size said.
'With River Dancer, it didn't look an altogether suitable race for him, being only 1,600 metres and having to carry 133 pounds. But he's run well again and he'll back-up in the Hong Kong Cup next week.'