Hong Kong's two highest-rated sprinters, Lucky Nine and Little Bridge, remain the standard-bearers for the depleted local short-course contingent, and both head into tomorrow's Jockey Club Sprint looking vulnerable. Failed early-season trips to Japan have left them short of their best and awkward draws add another degree of difficulty.
Lucky Nine and Little Bridge were fifth and 10th, respectively, in the Sprinters Stakes in September and have had a solitary barrier trial each since returning, their trainers mindful of leaving something in store for the Longines Hong Kong Sprint in three weeks.
Lucky Nine's handler, Caspar Fownes, said his horse was "85 per cent" fit and "not quite right in the coat". Meanwhile, Little Bridge's jockey Zac Purton revealed that a worsening breathing issue was a worry for his mount, who will "definitely strip fitter after this run".
Fownes faced a similar situation last season upon returning from a two-run tour of Japan, deciding to skip this event before winning the big one on international day.
"He has come back better this time than he did last year. He is getting there and this race will bring him on even more," Fownes said. "His work on Tuesday was nice. He ran a bit of time, his coat is not far off where I want it, but that will come in the next three weeks. I wanted him to have this one more race because he is a better horse third-up."
Little Bridge, who won this race last year before finishing fourth on the big day, snatched the Sprinter of the Year award from Lucky Nine with his late-season Royal Ascot heroics, but since then has been diagnosed as a three-out-of-five roarer.
"We're not sure how it is going to affect his performance. So far in his trackwork and trials, it hasn't affected him," Purton said. "It's something in the back of our mind and something we have to monitor. He has become much thicker winded."
Purton said it was not so much jumping from gate seven that was difficult, but the fact there was speed drawn underneath him, as well as an unknown quantity in Singapore sprinter Super Easy.
"I can see him settling six or seventh, but it all depends on how the race will be run," Purton said, while Fownes will instruct Brett Prebble to not "kill" Lucky Nine from barrier nine.
"Brett will ride him to win the race, but he'll be told under no circumstances to punish the horse," Fownes said.
After last season's decline and then retirement of four-time champion sprinter Sacred Kingdom, and the indefinite absence of injured star Entrapment, there is a void of quality sprinters that has yet to be filled, and as a result the locals' vice-like grip on the Hong Kong Sprint - they have won nine of the last 10 - looks a little looser.
"On face value, the depth at the top of the sprint ranks does seem thinner," Fownes said. "But you're going to have some young horses come through. They always do here - history tells us that. There will be something that steps up, maybe not in this race, but in the next six months."