Trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai was oozing confidence that Packing Dragon still had some upside and could defy a long-time curse after clinching an unlikely victory in the 2017 Happy Valley Million Challenge on Wednesday night.
On a track where leaders proved impossible to run down – seven of the eight winners were in front turning for home – Packing Dragon (Chad Schofield) surprised with the early pace he showed to get across from a wide gate at a distance short of his ideal.
After getting a breather mid-race, the half-brother to former champion Ambitious Dragon stuck on stoutly to hold off the finish of Circuit Land by a head and the Million Challenge was his.
It was an unlikely victory mainly because past winners of the series, which runs at Happy Valley from September to February each season for Class Three and above, have more often been sprinters or milers.
“This is the first time he has won under 1,800m but we had to run at 1,650m because there were no longer races available. He appreciated having a light weight in the higher class, probably having the outside barrier wasn’t bad for him because he got a clear run across and it was good to have a jockey who knows him well,” said Yiu, who bought the gelding as a yearling.
“This mare Golden Gamble has been very good – obviously, Ambitious Dragon was a champion but she also had Triumphant Dragon who won a few races here. I fell in love with this horse as a yearling. He was so well balanced and he wasn’t expensive – NZ$170,000.”
The Million Challenge winners have a gloomy history and few ever win again after taking the Challenge, although last year’s victor, Speedy Longwah, did manage a success this season.
“Well, I think this horse could be an exception,” said Yiu. “He’s a slow-maturing sort, he’s only five and I think there is some more to come. Even being able to win at the shorter distance tonight shows he is still improving.”
Packing Dragon’s 15 points last night for winning took him to 53 points and the HK$650,000 first prize, heading off overnight Million Challenge leader Happy Spirit, who was unable to improve on his 46 points in the same race. Victory Marvel, who didn’t race on the night, held on to third with 44 points for Caspar Fownes.
For Fownes, the hard luck story of a type was Blocker Dee, a dead-heater for first in the sixth race after looking to have won, and a clear win would have given him second in the Million Challenge.
“It’s a shame but at least he got half a win – he’s very honest, he’s run his race and the inside draw helped him but the leaders pulling up in the middle of the race definitely didn’t,” Fownes said.
Joao Moreira landed his usual three wins, while Alexis Badel produced what is quickly becoming his trademark mid-race move around the field to score a long-odds double on Unicorn and Rickfield.
Badel has now ridden seven winners during his stint, due to end on February 26, four of them coming with the looping run around field before the home turn.
Silvestre de Sousa’s stint was due to end that same day but he will finish up this Sunday instead after incurring the wrath of stewards for an incident early in race three and getting a two-day ban and HK$75,000 fine.
Nash Rawiller also managed to find his way on to the suspended list again, an incident late in the final race earning him a three-meeting suspension, starting March 1, and a HK$100,000 fine.