The coronavirus lockout limited the crowd at Happy Valley to just 122 people on Wednesday night, but those few on track witnessed the fastest 1,000m ever run at the iconic city circuit.
There were 18,099 at last year’s meeting but with only jockeys, trainers, key personnel and owners allowed on course, the normally heaving venue felt like a ghost town – even the Saturday morning barrier trials have more atmosphere.
But while these unprecedented times call for extreme measures, it didn’t affect the animals at all – with John Moore’s Stronger setting a new 1,000m track record in the Class Three Fanling Handicap.
Champion jockey Zac Purton gave the three-year-old a perfect run, settling in the box seat from barrier two before easing off heels and seemingly hitting the line with something to spare.
That was the thought until the time of 56.11 seconds flashed up – which was .14 better than the mark Mr Lumieres set in November.
“[Zac] said in the gates he was really quiet for an entire, jumped smartly and had the gun run all the way … he won unchallenged really,” Moore said.
“I’m really pleased with the result. He just quickened really nicely. I think we’ve got him in the right place now.”
New track record!— HKJC Racing (@HKJC_Racing) February 12, 2020
Stronger bags his first Hong Kong win and does it in record time, lowering the 1000m Happy Valley course record to 56.11s for @zpurton & John Moore! #HKracing pic.twitter.com/sDrbD6UPKt
Moore is confident the three-year-old colt still has plenty of upside.
“There’s another two wins in him this season. That was good, and thanks to the owner for being a bit patient because he wasn’t a cheap acquisition,” he said.
“We hope we can take him well up into Class Two and then find his way into the bottom of Class One.
“If there is a race we’ll come back here, if there’s not we’ll go to a 1,200m.”
The win completed a double for Purton, who also tasted success with Benno Yung Tin-pang’s Amazing in the opener.
The six-year-old collected his first Hong Kong win at start 22, while a race later the Dennis Yip Chor-hong-prepared Bulb Elite did likewise at his 25th run – two of the six winners on the night to enjoy their first victory in the jurisdiction.
But they were upstaged by arguably Hong Kong’s highest-profile maiden – Frankie Lor Fu-chuen’s Heavenly Thought – who finally crossed the line first in the first section of the Class Three Kwai Chung Handicap (1,650m).
Heavenly Thought ran second to Dark Dream in the 2018 Group One Queensland Derby before making the move north as a Hong Kong Derby prospect, but never made the grade in his first season.
The gelding needed a significant rating drop but he finally found his race under Joao Moreira, who also won aboard Farshad.
One man still stuck on an unwanted streak is Keith Yeung Ming-lun and it would have only got worse as he watched Takingufurther salute in the third race.
The popular jockey is battling through a winless run of 91 rides and was a late scratching from the meeting because of an upset stomach. His suffering would have gone to another level as he was originally booked to partner the Jimmy Ting Koon-ho-trained five-year-old.
Yeung’s replacement Grant van Niekerk took full advantage of the call up, rolling straight to the front and kicking away in the straight to salute in style. It was also a tough watch for favourite backers as odds-on hope California Rad missed the kick and never looked likely.
It was a turnaround in form for Takingufurther, who had struggled in three previous starts this term, but benefited from a break in Conghua.
“The last two times this horse has been very disappointing because he hasn’t wanted to go early – I don’t know what happened,” Ting said.
“His form was very good [last season], but after that race day was cancelled [on September 18], his form dropped away. So I gave him a break, gave him a trial and he’s come back a bit better – he’s still not at his peak but he’s better than he was.
“We were very lucky the pace wasn’t too fast so we could find the front.”
The shock of the night came in the very last race when John Size’s Ping Hai Galaxy saluted at a monster $160.
The Australian import had struggled in his first five Hong Kong starts, never finishing better than eighth, but he relished a fast pace and a switch to the Valley, running over the top of his rivals thanks to a terrific ride from Matthew Poon Ming-fai.