Australian Craig Williams has ridden the highs and lows of racing in the past few months, but capped a memorable year with victory on Dunaden in the Hong Kong Vase, making sure the internationals at least took home some silverware.
The former Hong Kong-based hoop famously missed the ride on Dunaden through suspension in the Melbourne Cup last month, looking on helplessly as good friend Christophe Lemaire rode away with Australia's biggest race. Williams was aiming to become the first rider to capture the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup in the same season, so the lost opportunity hurt.
Since then, Williams was beaten into second in the rich Japan Cup on Tosen Jordan. But yesterday's Vase, which continued the overseas dominance of the race, saw Williams back in the saddle and overjoyed at his shot at redemption.
'Once I got the call up I just couldn't wait,' said Williams, who added his expectation grew once he guided the horse through a superb track gallop at Sha Tin on Tuesday.
'I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to be considered for the Melbourne Cup this year, but hopefully they'll be back with the horse at Flemington next year.'
From barrier three, Williams had the horse positioned perfectly in the run.
'We wanted to be as close as we could from that draw without taking him out of his comfort zone,' he said. 'We thought that would help us in a race that might not be run at a fast clip.'
In the Melbourne Cup, Dunaden was headed by Red Cadeaux and fought back to win on the line. Similarly yesterday, the five-year-old seemed beaten by Thumbs Up, but fought doggedly to pull away for a three-quarter length victory.
'When he saw the bunny he lengthened like a good horse. I love this horse and the way he fights.'
Trainer Mikel Delzangles said he was stunned at his horse's rapid rise through the ranks: 'I still can't believe it. If you told me in May that I would be here in December I would not believe you.'
Hong Kong-based trainer Richard Gibson purchased the horse as an average handicapper and trained him in France for five starts.
The good-natured Englishman has always maintained he held no regrets about giving up a future international Group One winner and said he felt 'unquantified joy' for connections.
'What a horse to come from the bottom of the bottom in racing and to then reach the pinnacle,' Gibson said. 'It's a huge achievement.
'As far as regrets go, my regret would have been not coming to Hong Kong.'
The Caspar Fownes-trained Thumbs Up held on for second and, despite the seven-year-old's advancing age, could be aimed at international races, including the Dubai Duty Free (1,800m) next year or possibly an Australian spring campaign.
Brett Prebble labelled the horse 'Caulfield Cup or Cox Plate' standard.
'He has gone from a mile, to 2,000m to this and just didn't have the miles in his legs,' Prebble said. 'Caspar has done the best he can but there's just not the races for him. The horse has given me an awesome feel in three runs this preparation ... we'll win a big one with him.'
Dead-heating for third were Red Cadeaux, who ran admirably but failed to overturn his heart-braking Melbourne Cup loss to impressive Dunaden, and exciting French colt Silver Pond.
Red Cadeaux's trainer Ed Dunlop said the English stayer hadn't been suited by the hard surface.
'He was coming to win, but in the last 50 yards the ground was to too firm for him,' he said.
The number of times overseas horses have won the Hong Kong Vase since 1994