The absence of Joao Moreira for the second straight meeting gives other jockeys a chance to shine and next in line Zac Purton heads to Sha Tin with a some great chances including Little Giant and Empire Star.
Purton, champion rider in 2013-14, has been runner-up to Moreira in the championship for the past three seasons and again is second in the standings with 13 wins to the Brazilian’s 21 after 12 meetings.
Saturday’s meeting gives Purton the chance to close the gap with rides in nine of the 10 races, including the two aforementioned likely favourites.
David Hall’s Kiwi import Little Giant resumes with an ideal draw on the dirt while Me Tsui Yu-sak has put blinkers on Empire Star at the right time after his five-year-old made a good impression first-up.
Little Giant arrived with some big wraps on him after going two-for-two in New Zealand for trainer Lisa Latta.
It wasn’t so much that the wins looked good, but that the form around Little Giant was stacking up.
While Little Giant spent a period sidelined, the horse he easily beat on debut, Humidor, was racking up quite a record in Australia.
After switching to top Victorian trainer Darren Weir, Humidor won the 2017 Group One Australian Cup before finishing runner-up in the Group One BMW.
Less than two months later Little Giant finally made his debut for Hall, winning impressively over 1,200m as short-priced favourite.
Little Giant jumped 11 points for that performance and second-up was a touch flat.
Even accounting for the fact he was tackling a steep rise in class, Little Giant peaked on his run in third as he failed to chase down runaway leader Shamal.
The always patient Hall then put Little Giant away for the season and the five-year-old heads into the Class Two Hakka Culture Handicap (1,200m) after a solitary trial.
The decision to head to the dirt has surprised many but Little Giant’s trials on the surface have been excellent and perhaps this is an easier assignment than would be presented on turf – with Class Two options at the distance also limited.
Drawing low on the 1,200m all-weather track course isn’t always seen a positive but statistics over the past three seasons show a relatively even spread of winners and a slight advantage to be drawn low.
Little Giant should be able to maintain a close spot in the run, allowing Purton to measure his run against the leading horses.
The pace doesn’t look overly strong for a race of this type, with John Moore-trained stablemates Pablosky (Tommy Berry) and Happy Meteor (Matthew Poon Ming-fai) holding the key to the speed.
Tsui has thrown serious numbers at the depleted early season races and made his usual fast start to the term.
He sits atop the trainers’ standings, equal with Chris So Wai-yin, with nine winners, but has had by far the most runners so far with 94 – 11 more than the nearest trainer, Dennis Yip Chor-hong.
At Empire Star’s first race start he went within a head of causing a massive upset at triple-figure odds over 1,200m at Happy Valley in March.
It was an encouraging result for the three-year-old, who was still green and seemed as though more ground – and eventually perhaps the bigger track – would suit more.
That first-up run proved to be a false dawn and it was all happening too fast for Empire Star in his first preparation, with the gelding travelling on and off the bridle and not being as responsive as he needed to be.
First-up over 1,400m this time in and given a chance to wind up and get home at Sha Tin, Empire Star did a great job getting home for third behind Diamond Mysterious and Experto Crede.
The blinkers are the key though, with the headgear likely to produce a more lively galloper when he contests the Class Four Hong Kong Mei Zhou Association Handicap (1,400m).
From gate five on the C course, Purton can have Empire Star a horse or two closer in the run and when it comes time to go, the five-year-old should be able to get into the contest quickly.