At the season opener last year, David Hayes collected a double in his highly-anticipated return to Hong Kong racing and with another 12 months under his belt, the bar has been raised in terms of expectations for both this meeting and the campaign ahead.
While the wins of Moneymore and Metro Warrior were welcome at the time, they were two of just 32 for the term – an underwhelming number for the two-time Hong Kong champion trainer and member of the Australian racing Hall of Fame.
Hayes remains bullish about the progress of his team this season – “I’ll be disappointed if I don’t train double the winners” – but also about the quality of races he hopes to be claiming.
The 58-year-old only had two Class Two victories in 2020-21 – talented types Fantastic Treasure and Naboo Attack providing the spoils – and it is the latter who can deliver the first Class One since his return in the Chief Executive’s Cup (1,200m) at Sha Tin.
The giant son of Warhead – who raced at 1,360 pounds when saluting in impressive fashion at his Hong Kong debut – looks to be one of the leading hopes in a terrific edition of the feature.
A minor hoof issue meant Hayes didn’t race him again after that performance in May, but it has ensured Naboo Attack is ready to fire on Sunday.
“I was very happy not to run him at the end of the season. I think it’s paid benefits,” the trainer said. “He’s trialled very well up the straight but the only thing is that in the trials the gates are smaller and he’s too big for them and he keeps getting a bit touchy in there. So we’ve applied for an extension and I think that’ll do the trick.
“I’m hoping to have him get up in the ratings and be my Class One sprinter-miler. If he can win this race or one in September then he’ll be getting close to [a rating of] 100 and that means you’re in the zone.”
Karis Teetan takes the ride with Naboo Attack carrying just 113 pounds, while he has drawn well in barrier six.
It looks to be one of the most competitive Chief Executive’s Cups in years with a strong field of 13 featuring the likes of Amazing Star, Lucky Patch, Rattan, Tourbillon Diamond and Winning Dreamer taking part, but that doesn’t perturb Hayes.
“Providing he doesn’t make a total mess of the start, I’m pretty confident he’ll go well,” he said.
Hayes appears to have another big chance with debutant Nervous Witness, who won’t have escaped the notice of trial watchers after a couple of impressive hit-outs.
Sporting the colours made famous by Silent Witness, the Star Witness gelding is likely to start favourite in the Class Four Lin Fa Shan Handicap (1,000m) with Zac Purton steering from gate 10.
“His trials have been exceptional and he looks a very good, progressive Class Four horse,” Hayes said.
“I’ve just built him up quietly. I thought if I trial him again he’ll only win by five lengths and create mass hysteria so I may as well run him for a bit of money.”
Also among Hayes’ string of eight for the opening day are Super Axiom, Master Montaro, Sight Hero and Lucky Maryknoll.
Having rolled with the punches last term, the typically optimistic Australian believes he’s in a much better position to attack the 2021-2022 campaign.
“I like the stock I’ve got in the stable. Having horses in their second season in Hong Kong is a lot better than having 63 horses in their first season. They’re eating better, they’re coping with the weather better and they’re trialling and working well,” he said.
“Either I got sacked or retired 37 horses last season and they netted me one win. I can assure you the 37 who replaced them will do a lot better than that.”