Revered as the King of The Valley, Caspar Fownes added further lustre to an imposing city circuit record when Nearly Fine delivered the trainer's fourth Million Challenge success at Happy Valley on Wednesday night.
Previously successful in the competition with Socrates, who tied with Easy in 2006/07, Ocean Wide in 2008/09 and Twin Delight in 2014/15, Fownes secured a fourth crown with Nearly Fine's three wins and two thirds in a series restricted to horses racing in Class 3 and above.
Despite finishing fifth behind Francis Lui's The Irishman, who triumphed in the Class 1 Shan Kwong Handicap (1650m) for Vincent Ho to provide a double for both trainer and jockey, Nearly Fine clinched the series – and a $650,000 first prize – with 53 points from Street Scream (48) and Excellent Peers and Yo Beauty (42), who tied for third.
The overall champion is decided by a format where 15 points are awarded for a win, six for second, four for third and three for fourth placing.
“I'm very happy to get the prize. We tried to do it and it's nice when you get the winning result. I'm very happy,” said Fownes, who has totalled a record 558 wins at Happy Valley so far.
“He (Nearly Fine) surprised us, really, starting off in Class 3 and then all the way to running extremely well in a Group 3. He's done us proud. He's come a long way. He still ran well tonight and I think we have a chance to go to Sha Tin next time and run well.”
Street Scream, who needed to win the Class 3 Sing Woo Handicap (1200m) to displace Nearly Fine, instead ran fourth to Frankie Lor's Speedy Mouse, while Excellent Peers – another contender with a chance to seal the series with victory – finished fifth in the same race.
Encountered also had a chance to jump into the top three with victory in the Class 3 Tsui Man Handicap (1650m) but was foiled by Danny Shum's Gorytus, who charged to victory under Jerry Chau despite a carrying 133lb and being first-up since his last start in July.
Encountered, who is entered for the Hong Kong Derby (2000m) at Sha Tin on March 19, was ultimately beaten by a neck by Gorytus.
Pierre Ng jubilated in the success of Astrologer in the Class 1 Blue Pool Handicap (1200m) after the Star Turn gelding's explosive turn of foot under Alexis Badel delivered a PP Bonus of HK$1 million in addition to prize money of HK$1.97 million. In the midst of a fine debut season, Ng has 23 wins for the term.
A rails-hugging ride by Vincent Ho was pivotal to Francis Lui-trained Foxhunter Way's breakthrough victory in the Class 5 Yuk Sau Handicap (1650m) before Hugh Bowman continued an excellent season with success on Flying Silver for Danny Shum in the Class 4 Yik Yam Handicap (1800m).
“He's a nice horse, very consistent and he loves Happy Valley,” Shum said. “He got a fantastic ride and he finished off very strongly. I'll keep him here for another race like this one – even in Class 3 he would have a good chance.”
Bowman sealed a double with another outstanding ride aboard Special M in the Class 3 King Kwong Handicap (1000m). Poised behind the speed, Bowman angled back to the inside to notch his 23rd winner of the season.
A well-timed ride on Derek Leung allowed Jimmy Ting-trained Prime Mortar to overhaul Allgreektome in the final stages of the Class 4 Wang Tak Handicap (1200m), giving the son of Winning Rupert a second Hong Kong win and Ting's 13th of the campaign.
Douglas Whyte's decision to apply blinkers Hearty Wish enabled the Sweynesse gelding to land the Class 4 Village Handicap (1000m) under Lyle Hewitson.
“He had the right draw, I put the blinkers on and he got a nice ride from Lyle,” Whyte said. “I don't think he's a true 1000m horse. I think the blinkers tonight helped him concentrate and kept him on his mark.”
Whyte and Hewitson have 11 victories this season in tandem.