River Verdon in grand debut
HONG KONG champion River Verdon makes his Happy Valley debut tonight in a move that certainly adds enormous interest to the first leg of the innovative Sprint Championship.
The Jockey Club wisely moved to make speed races more important to owners - and thus swing the emphasis on importing horses away from hoped-for Derby winners - by putting up a Champion Sprint series this season.
The series encompasses three races, tonight's $1.35 million Happy Valley Trophy, the $1.7 million Centenary Cup and the $2.75 million Chairman's Prize as the climax next May.
A special prize of $400,000 goes to the owner of a horse that sweeps all three races with $160,000 going to connections of a horse that takes two of the series.
River Verdon's trainer, David Hill, has had his eye on the series since before the start of the season - even though his decision to run River Verdon at the tight city track has caught many by surprise.
''It just so happens that all the races fall before our major targets for the season - this one before the International Cup, the next one before the Gold Cup and the Chairman's Prize before the Champions and Chater Cup at the end of the season.
''It seems perfectly logical to me to let the horse have his chance. I have always preferred him to be involved in terms races and the Happy Valley Trophy will be an excellent further step for him along the way to the International Cup,'' he said.
Hill is also not overly concerned about the tighter track. ''Sure, he's a big horse but he can get round all right. He is there to win if he can but we are not going to be knocking him about,'' he said.
River Verdon ran an excellent race first-up in the Remy XO Cup where he finished just behind the placegetters in the 1,200-metre dash. That was no surprise but it would be a definite shock if he won at Happy Valley tonight.
It is not so much the track - great racehorses have won at tracks every bit as tight as Happy Valley - but the fact that he will not appreciate the longer sprint here second time up.
Hill has done his best to keep River Verdon fresh but the odds must be that he would be too far out of his ground early on to be a dominant factor, even though he will storm home.
Without doubt the one to beat is John Moore's exciting Happy Money.
He absolutely bolted in late last month, course and distance, in a very smart time and also looked as if he would appreciate the run under his belt. It was a tremendous win and it is difficult not to see it being repeated here.
Moore, who has Happy Money aimed for the International Bowl, was delighted with his first outing.
''He had drawn well and we most certainly thought he could win. But he had a lot of problems last season which were virus-related and it leaves a nagging doubt in your mind. He had done quite a bit of work but I still thought he might need some more.
''In the circumstances I thought it was a brilliant effort and we are certainly happy with him now,'' said Moore.
Hill's other runner, Red Ruffian, who won last season's Chairman's Prize, looks the big hope for the stable over this trip.
He was pulled out of the Remy XO Cup with cracked heels and lost a few days work but is now back and in tip-top shape.
''There was no sense taking a chance with him in the Remy when this race was just around the corner. We took him to the vet straight away and he lost a few days work but we had that planned.
''He is in good shape and he will go very well,'' said Hill.
It is almost impossible to see past the two genuine sprinters in the field.
Kadbridge cannot beat Happy Money at the weights and none of the others is suited by this trip.
In other days Sound Print would have posed a threat. Trainer Brian Kan Ping-chee is trying to ''re-convert'' him into 1,200 to 1,400-metre material after a long campaign over staying trips. The horse has also had soundness problems and, like most of them, should be left for dead with the early pace that will be on.
Happy Guy has been overall a disaappointing type while Galway is patently out of his distance - and on the wrong track - here.
Optic Empire seems the only other potential threat. He is a speedy type and he has drawn next to the rails but, again, all his best efforts last season came over longer trips.
And that leaves Quicken Away who was soundly beaten in the Remy and has a mountain to climb here.
It does look like Happy Money and Red Ruffian with, possibly, River Verdon thundering home for a meritorius third.