Field sizes have been disappointing early in the 2022-23 season but the Group Three Celebration Cup (1,400m) takes things to another level at Sha Tin on Sunday, with only six runners going to post for the first Group contest of the term.

It’s by far the smallest field in the history of the race, which dates back to 1999 and was named the National Day Cup until 2013.

A race that has often attracted a full field of 14 runners dipped into single figures for the first time last year with nine, but this season’s poor turnout – in a year when Group One stars Golden Sixty and Wellington are yet to resume – highlights a lack of top-end depth in Hong Kong.

The Jockey Club announced a raft of prize-money increases earlier this year as it looks to rejuvenate a flagging horse population and encourage owners to splash out on proven gallopers who can quickly make an impact in the jurisdiction’s pattern races.

Trainer Ricky Yiu. Photo: Kenneth Chan

Turnover has been down to start the season and in response to field sizes in general, Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges admitted recently Hong Kong’s horse population – which sits at around 1,100 – is probably 80 gallopers short of where it needs to be.

The Jockey Club is bringing forward some of next season’s private purchase griffin permits for previously unraced horses to try and combat the wider issue, and trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai hopes officials can alleviate the problem across the board.

“It’s not healthy,” Yiu said of the skinny Celebration Cup field. “There are some issues in Hong Kong racing, and [field sizes] is one of them.

“The club needs to do something about it. Even the last two meetings at Happy Valley, even in the middle classes, there’s not even a full field.”

Yiu saddles up honest seven-year-old Mighty Giant in a HK$3.9 million Celebration Cup in which California Spangle looks set to dominate betting.

“He likes the trip, he looks fresh, and it’s only a small field, so I think he’ll be in the money,” Yiu said. “He always tries hard, and his trial was the same as usual. He’s started to jump better now, but he’s a grinder – it takes a bit of time to build him up.”

While the race itself doesn’t generate any great excitement, Zac Purton is itching to jump back aboard California Spangle, who he won the Classic Cup with before seconds to Romantic Warrior in the Hong Kong Derby and Golden Sixty in the Group One Champions Mile.

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“He’s my favourite horse at the moment, so I’m looking forward to getting back on him,” Purton said.

“There’s a lot to like about him. His trials have been quite good up there in Conghua. It’s hard to get a good line through those trials, but he’s had his hit-outs up there, and he looks as though he’s going well. He was able to trial up there on the grass, and he looks good.”

Will Power, Duke Wai, Cheerful Days and Healthy Happy round out the field for a race superstars Beauty Generation (2017, 2018 and 2019) and Golden Sixty (2020) have taken out in recent years.