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Cruz helps himself to a treble

Murray Bell

Master trainer wins final three races for a mouth-watering return of 242-1

Tony Cruz will head into Sunday's Champions Mile meeting at Sha Tin with confidence sky high after completing a winning 242-1 hat-trick in the final three races at last night's all-dirt meeting at the New Territories course.

Cruz, who took the quinella in last year's Champions Mile with Bullish Luck and Silent Witness, is four handed this year, adding Russian Pearl and Perfect Partner to last year's stars.

While last night's fare of eight all-weather races may not have been to the taste of everyone, Cruz simply lapped it up, adding further to his strike rate as Hong Kong's most formidable trainer on the artificial surface.

Phantom Thief (Felix Coetzee) landed the biggest betting move of the night when he rewrote his job description with a powerful win at 1,200 metres, completely turning around his Australian form which had him as a one-paced, middle-distance galloper.

The Tasmanian Derby winner firmed from $85 during the afternoon to $63 (25 minutes before the race) and eventually his price tumbled right in to start as the $33.50 favourite.

Cruz then rolled into California Prince, handled by apprenticed Marco Chui Kwan-lai, who held off the late charge of River Jordan (Gerald Mosse) to land the seventh event, and Floral Pegasus (Vincent Sit Shing-kin) led through to land the last at 1,650 metres.

'Phantom Thief has been something of a surprise because he came to us with solid form in Australia as a stayer but we've been forced to progressively drop him back in distance,' Cruz explained.

'Last start, we ran him over 1,650 metres on dirt and he still didn't run it out, so I really had no option but to bring him right back to a sprinting distance.

'Tonight, it all worked out well, because there was a lot of speed in the race and from his inside barrier, he was able to follow the pace throughout and then use his strength in the final 300 metres.'

Cruz was disappointed that Coetzee was not on board ultra-talented three-year-old Floral Pegasus as well, but revealed that the Chan family, who own the handsome chestnut, had been upset with the jockey's ride last start and requested a change.

'It disappoints me, because there were completely understandable circumstances surrounding that race last start but if this horse makes it to a big race, I promise Felix will be riding him because he's the best,' Cruz said. 'When you get to a feature race, you not only want Felix's strength, you need it.'

The night ended in controversy when well-backed Lucky Paradise ($66) was left stranded in the barriers in the final event, unable to leave the machine because his head was caught in the neighbouring stall.

Jockey Olivier Doleuze said the horse was in the air when the starter let them go, and then came down with his head swung across the partition. The Frenchman was adamant Lucky Paradise was denied a fair start, and trainer John Moore echoed that sentiment.

If stipendiary stewards had ruled that way, punters who backed Lucky Paradise would have received their investment back - an estimated $6 million on win and place alone.

But to the collective chagrin of Doleuze, Moore and the punters, the six-year-old was deemed to be a starter and all bets were lost, without a run for their money.

Chief steward Jamie Stier said Lucky Paradise had the opportunity to jump away and failed to do so because of his own behaviour.

'The [non-runner] rule is there in case of an external event prevents a horse obtaining a fair start, such as an attendant holding on to the horse when the gates are released,' Stier explained. 'That was definitely not the case here and the stewards had no option but to rule that Lucky Paradise was a starter.'

The all-weather track provided a hot leaders' strip, and none made better use of it than Silly Boy, who became the eighth individual winner (of 11 races) that Tony Millard has produced this season with cast-offs from other stables.

Silly Boy won by a staggering 81/2 lengths, but his rider, Thomas Yeung Kai-tong, was later suspended for three meetings for crossing too sharply at the first turn on another front-runner, Strawberry Kisses.