The last time Ka Ying Star graced the hallowed turf at Happy Valley there was no such thing as Covid-19, the National Security Law didn’t exist and 15,640 racing fans – locals, expats and tourists – were able to enjoy the fun and frivolity of the band in the beer garden.
That was April 17, 2019 – more than two and a half years ago – and clearly much has changed since then, on and off the track.
Ka Ying Star lined up in a Class Two over 1,650m that night, finishing fifth to Turin Redstar, beaten a length and a half, with Rivet, Ruthven and Chefano in between them.
Since then, the Tony Cruz-trained gelding has gone on to become one of Hong Kong’s most consistent top-level campaigners, competing in an astonishing 25 Group contests.
He’s only won one of them – the Group Three Lion Rock Trophy in 2020 – but that undersells just how well he has performed as he was placed on 11 occasions, including three times at Group One level behind the likes of Beauty Generation and Golden Sixty.
So the presence of Ka Ying Star in Wednesday night’s Group Three January Cup (1,800m) – the only Group race at Happy Valley for the season – casts a huge shadow over the rest of the field.
Boasting a big rating of 124, the son of Cityscape has forced more than half the field out of the handicap, ensuring those on the minimum of 113 pounds – last year’s winner Savvy Nine, Zebrowski, Super Football, Sunny Star and Decrypt – are actually carrying much more than their ratings say they should, making their task more difficult.
Because of his standing, Ka Ying Star will have to lump the top weight of 133 pounds, with Vincent Ho Chak-yiu taking the ride from barrier six.
Ho will push forward from that gate, as will Derek Leung Ka-chun on Frankie Lor Fu-chuen’s Reliable Team, who jumps from the alley immediately outside him.
Reliable Team and Ka Ying Star ran the quinella in November’s Group Two Jockey Club Cup (2,000m) at Sha Tin after crawling through the first 1,200m and then sprinting home the last 800m.
Without any other obvious pace angles in the field, it’s likely to be a tactic they try again, which opens up the possibility for a mid-race move if one of their rivals wants to mix it up and put themselves in the race.
David Hall’s veteran Fast Most Furious has to be respected after a strong performance in an extended ratings band Class Two over 1,600m at Sha Tin on international day, with Matthew Chadwick replacing the injured Zac Purton in the saddle.
The Douglas Whyte-prepared Savvy Nine is the defending January Cup champion and while he hasn’t won since then, he hasn’t been far away in his past three starts and a win wouldn’t shock.
The horse on the up is Zebrowski from the Caspar Fownes stable, with the five-year-old hitting his straps once he stepped up to 1,800m, and championship-leading jockey Joao Moreira will ride him two pounds over from barrier three.
Outside the Group Three, there are two interesting runners in the Class Two Causeway Handicap (1,200m) in Hong Kong Win and Setanta.
The former is on the quick backup after running fifth in the Group Three Bauhinia Sprint Trophy on Saturday – beaten just two and a quarter lengths by rising star Master Eight.
The latter is having his first Hong Kong start after a solid career in Australia, where he won three of his 10 starts, the most recent at Listed level.
But it is not what Setanta has done on the track but rather his breeding that really stands out – he is a full-brother to Coolmore stallion Merchant Navy, who won Group Ones in both Australia and England, and cost A$2.3 million (HK$13 million) at the 2019 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sales.
Now under the care of Francis Lui Kin-wai, Setanta has looked good in three Conghua trials with Karis Teetan to take the ride from barrier four.