Danny Shum is counting down the days to the Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint on 8 December after Seasons Bloom (125lb) swooped under Grant van Niekerk to snare a thrilling victory in the Group 2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m) at Sha Tin yesterday afternoon, Sunday, 20 October.
Shum could have two strong candidates for the HK$20 million showcase seven weeks from now, with the stable's rising star Regency Legend being pointed that way too.
“I didn't run Regency Legend in this race today because I'll run him in the (Group 2) Jockey Club Sprint on 17 November. Seasons Bloom won't run in that race, I'll keep him fresh and hopefully both will meet in the Hong Kong Sprint in December,” the handler said.
Seasons Bloom had closed nicely for second place behind Regency Legend in a 1200m Class 1 on 1 September, after which Shum stuck to a ‘patience first' agenda and gave his classy charge seven weeks to arrive at today's test in prime condition. This was his first success since a career peak win in the January 2018 Group 1 Stewards' Cup (1600m).
“I've kept him fresh, that's important for this horse,” Shum said. “We had a detailed plan with the owner. We know we can't beat Beauty Generation over 1600 metres, he's a super champion, so we planned to run him in the HKSAR Chief Executive's Cup over 1200 (metres) on the first day of the season and he ran a good race, so we aimed him at this.”
The handler also acknowledged the importance of the Hong Kong Jockey Club's facility at Conghua, where Seasons Bloom has been based since December last year.
“Conghua has helped him a lot,” he said. “It's all about keeping this horse fresh and keeping him happy – the environment there is good for him, he loves it and my team there has done a great job with him.”
Rattan (132lb) made the running in the first Group 2 race of the Hong Kong season as the 2.3 favourite Full Of Beauty (120lb) settled fourth, just ahead of Pakistan Star (131lb) and Wishful Thinker (127lb). Seasons Bloom parked on the rail with Ivictory (133lb) on his left flank and only fresh air behind.
Van Niekerk shifted Seasons Bloom to mid track upon straightening for the wire but was still last with 250m to race as Full Of Beauty wrestled to get ahead of the longtime leader. No sooner had Joao Moreira's mount edged to the fore than Seasons Bloom hit full stride and whistled by to land a short-head verdict in 1m 08.83s, clocking the all-time second fastest closing 400m over the distance with a split of 21.14s.
“I just played the patient game and it paid off,” Van Niekerk said. “Coming around the turn I didn't think I had any sort of chance because of the pace and I was stuck on the rail and I couldn't pull out and go early but then my horse showed a great turn-of-foot that last 100 metres.”
The win was Van Niekerk's first Group 2 score in Hong Kong, his only other Pattern race success being aboard Flying Thunder in last season's Group 3 Premier Cup Handicap.
John Size, meanwhile, was seeking a third consecutive win in the Premier Bowl after Mr Stunning (2017) and Hot King Prawn (2018), but the champion trainer had to settle for second with the Moreira-ridden Full Of Beauty, the market top pick off the back of his last start win in the Group 3 National Day Cup Handicap (1000m).
“He had a dream run, unfortunately he just got beaten,” Moreira said. “There is a bit of frustration from not winning the race but we have to be very pleased with what he's done in the recent past, including today. He's run very well, he's always up there in the top four – today he's second and it was definitely a good run.”
Trainer Paul O'Sullivan had hoped Group 1-winning stayer Pakistan Star might be reinvented as a top-class sprinter. Jockey Zac Purton snatched-up the six-year-old close home when in the mix for minor honours and the pair finished fifth, beaten a length and three quarters.
“It was another solid effort but when it comes to the crunch, under pressure, he doesn't want to fight,” Purton said.
O'Sullivan has not given up on the sprinting plan.
“He ranged up at the 300 (metres) like he was going to be right in the finish and I thought he was going to run right into it but he just didn't go through with it. We might put the blinkers back on for his next start, we'll have to tweak around something with him to get him to focus,” the trainer said.
“I don't think the 1200 metres was any problem, he travelled and didn't get run off his legs and the (LONGINES Hong Kong) Sprint is probably going to be the softer option. Next start we go in off set-weights, which is going to be to his advantage, but there'll be a few other smart horses added to the mix so we'll have to think about it. The 1200 metres (route) is not in stone but it's still a possibility.”
The Caspar Fownes-trained Rise High produced an upset to win the afternoon's other Group 2 contest, the Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy Handicap (1600m) under Vincent Ho, flooring Hong Kong champion Beauty Generation, who finished third, with Waikuku runner-up.