A first look at the quirky Nakayama racecourse might have given jockey Zac Purton the vital clue to a win in today's Group One Sprinters Stakes on Little Bridge that can set the King's Stand Stakes winner up for a US$ 1 million bonus at Sha Tin in December.
Little Bridge has to win three legs of the Global Sprint Challenge to earn the bonus and has one leg in the bag from Royal Ascot and the final leg to come on home soil, but he needs the Sprinters Stakes to make the bonus a possibility.
The leading Japanese sprinters, Pas De Trois, Dasher Go Go, Curren Chan, Lord Kanaloa and Epice Arome all drew wide on Friday for the eighth leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, and with Purton's mount Little Bridge in seven and Lucky Nine in five, the Sprinters Stakes pendulum looked to be swinging Hong Kong's way.
However, Purton said yesterday he did not believe a wide draw at Nakayama's 1,200-metre start was a terminal disadvantage.
"Last year, Curren Chan sat wide and won well and, watching on the telecast in Hong Kong, it looked a really exceptional win because of that, but now that I've seen Nakayama first-hand I can see why a wide draw and even a bit of a wide run is not the end of the world," the jockey said after walking the course with Little Bridge's trainer, Danny Shum Chap-shing.
The Nakayama 1,200m consists of a long arc running to the home turn, then the course turns fairly sharply into the straight with an uphill finish over the final 200m.
"The only real turn is when you get to the 600m and that allows horses that are wide to roll into the race and get momentum into the straight and finish off," Purton said. "I've had a look at some of the past runnings of the Sprinters Stakes, and what you don't want to be is on the fence and waiting as they go around you, because you hit a bottleneck. I'm not saying barriers aren't important, but what is more important is your position coming to the turn and whether you're in a position to make your move when you want to."
Little Bridge's King's Stand Stakes win at Royal Ascot was a career highlight for Purton in June and the the jockey was happy with what he saw of the sprinter when he arrived in Tokyo.
"When he trialled before the first meeting in Hong Kong, he was a long way short of serious fitness and he left for Japan 10 days later and I haven't seen him for a while," Purton said. "But he looks much better now, Danny's got him up to competitive fitness and we know how good he is fresh so I'm confident he'll run well. It does look a fairly tough race, with the Japanese and of course Lucky Nine, but we know Little Bridge is good enough and the draw in the middle gives me some tactical options."
Hong Kong runners have won the Sprinters Stakes twice in the past, with Silent Witness a dominant favourite in 2005 and Ultra Fantasy providing a long-priced surprise two years ago, but the two-pronged attack this year is one of the strongest ever.
There's no doubting the confidence in the Caspar Fownes camp for Lucky Nine but the trainer was still mindful of the standard of the HK$19.7 million race yesterday too.
"For that kind of money you never get any easy races and especially away from home, but I couldn't be happier with Lucky Nine - work, feet, fitness and draw, they are all right and he must be a great chance," Fownes said.
The X-factor remains the weather, with a 40 per cent chance of rain forecast today.
The early betting market in Japan for the race certainly wasn't offering much respect for the Hong Kong runners, with Curren Chan an early short-priced favourite to make it back to back Sprinters Stakes.
Curren Chan led up before running out of condition and finishing fourth in the Centaur Stakes at her first run for six months and trainer Takayuki Yasuida, who also saddles up Lord Kanaloa and Dasher Go Go, expects the mare to be much fitter.
"She surprised us by giving us quite an aggressive run last time out. The trip was a tough one and the results not the best, but the 56kg she was carrying was tough," he said. "There wasn't much time between races so we haven't done too much but she seems to be feeling good."
Lucky Nine was listed at over 15-1 early and Little Bridge as a 12-1 chance.