Group racing returned to Happy Valley after a decade's absence last night and the big players didn't let anyone down, with big race jockey Gerald Mosse topping off a good night and claiming the Group Three January Cup, 1,800m, on Pure Champion.
Mosse rode three winners on the night, scoring with Best Noodle for Peter Ho Leung and Great Renown for Richard Gibson, but he was at his feature race best on Pure Champion for Tony Cruz, finding a space with cover in the run before letting the five-year-old stallion loose in the stretch to claim Packing Ok (Jeff Lloyd) impressively in the final 100m.
'Last time I was forced to lead in the very slow pace but he is a much better horse when you give him a chance early, he has a really nice turn of foot,' Mosse said.
Trainer Cruz said that Pure Champion, purchased as a potential classic horse last term, had been much better acclimatised this time.
'I think the club should have more of these lesser Group races - you know there aren't many Group races a season here in Hong Kong and so many owners now are going and spending big money for Derby horse,' Cruz said. 'Only one can win the Derby and, especially these European horses, they can take a long time to settle in.'
Pure Champion was fraught with the usual problems for many European horses, with mucus issues for much of last season as well as foot problems.
'He kept getting quarter cracks in his hind hoofs and was very difficult to shoe - in fact, he had to be sedated to put shoes on him and is still difficult,' Cruz said. 'But he is stronger now, he isn't having the mucus problems and he's racing well. This is probably his distance, 1800m, but there aren't many features at that distance.'
Trainer Caspar Fownes said he had recommended to the owners of Noble Conqueror that he be retired after his brave, if distant, third in the feature at his first run since June last year. Noble Conqueror has been the best Happy Valley horse of recent seasons but the nine-year-old is so highly-rated that he has few options each season at the city track and he has never shown the same form at Sha Tin.
'I would have been happy for them to retire him already but the owners wanted one more chance at this race and I had his fit and ready and he's run well under the big weight but I think that should be it - there's a long wait for his next suitable race,' said Fownes.
It was a night of 'lucky sevens', with the saddlecloth number claiming the last five events, the last of them with Pizzazz's extraordinary performance coming from a conspicuous last at the 600m to claim victory on the line.
'It was a gamble to bring him to Happy Valley. There was nowhere to run him for seven weeks if we didn't run here so I gambled and about 500m from the finish I was telling myself what an idiot I was,' said trainer Paul O'Sullivan.
But Pizzazz (Derek Leung Ka-chun) rescued him from any further self recrimination by hurtling past the entire field in a stunning performance.
The John Size-trained Mentor (Darren Beadman) also had his first look at the Valley track but the tradesmanlike three-year-old didn't put a foot wrong from a low draw to win as favourite, though not by any fancy margins.
'He's an intelligent, quiet horse and I wasn't too worried about him not having been here before, especially when he drew a gate,' said Size after Mentor made it three wins from four starts. Stewards adjourned an inquiry into Alex Lai Hoi-wing's handling of Common Goal in the third event after the grey finished well from last to be just behind the placings, and Lai was all over their radar.
He also caught a HK$20,000 fine for not riding Happy Champion right to the post in the opening race, as did Vincent Ho Chak-yiu, fined HK$15,000 for failing to send Upgrading right to the wire in the fourth.