Zac Purton believes Circuit Stellar's barrier manners will be crucial to the outcome of the HK$4.2 million Group 3 Celebration Cup Handicap (1400m) at Sha Tin on Sunday when Tony Cruz searches for a third successive victory in the season's first Group contest.
To face only five rivals this weekend – Beauty Joy (135lb), Healthy Happy (125lb), Straight Arron (125lb), Encountered (123lb) and The Golden Scenery (115lb) – Circuit Stellar competed in 15 races last season for three wins, six minor placings and finishing no further back than sixth in a sustained display of remarkable consistency.
Starting last season on a mark of 80, the Irish-bred finished the campaign on 105, having posted two Group 3 second placings with performances Purton hopes can deliver his fourth Group 3 Celebration Cup Handicap triumph after previous success with California Spangle (2022) and Beauty Generation (2018 and 2019).
“He (Circuit Stellar) is a little bit of a tricky horse from the gates. Sometimes he steps a bit slowly and if that happens, he races a bit further back. But if he begins well, he can be right there. It will be up to him on the day,” Purton said.
“I haven't spoken to Tony about the horse yet, either, so I'm not sure what his thoughts are but the horse was racing really well towards the back end of last season and Tony's horses are racing well, so hopefully he can come out and do something for us.”
Apart from Circuit Stellar, Cruz – who has won the past two editions of the race with California Spangle and Buddies – will be represented by Beauty Joy and The Golden Scenery.
“(The) key metric is Hugh Bowman. He's got good hands, he can teach the horse to relax and finish,” Shum said. “(Nordic Dragon) is very good, he's very healthy and he's trialled very good and (after) the final gallop (on Thursday, September 21), Hugh Bowman gave me a very positive report.”
A Hong Kong International Sale Graduate, Nordic Dragon boasts five wins from seven Happy Valley starts but finished eighth in his sole Sha Tin attempt last season.
“This (his ability to handle Sha Tin) is the only concern – some concern – but you have to try,” Shum said of the four-year-old, who reeled off three successive wins at the end of his last preparation. “His rating is 93 and we don't have much races in Happy Valley at this stage. “I think he's improving – I don't know how much – but he is improving.”
While Shum saddles six runners at Sha Tin this weekend, he will eagerly monitor the feedback from Romantic Warrior's gallop at Werribee in Australia, where the star stayer is preparing for the Group 1 Turnbull Stakes (2000m) at Flemington on October 7.
Shum said the three-time Hong Kong Group 1 winner was slowly adjusting to a new feed and had acclimatised positively to his adopted surroundings.
“He's got used to the Werribee weather, the track – he's quite nice. Ben So, my AT (assistant trainer) and my work rider, every morning we talk and they give me a good report, not a fantastic report, but a good report,” Shum said.
“He will gallop on the turf at Werribee tomorrow morning (Saturday, 23 September). Actually, James McDonald wanted to come (to ride trackwork) but I said ‘No, let the boys do the gallop first' but I will send Romantic Warrior and Romantic Charm to Flemington at six o'clock on the first October and James McDonald will gallop him.”
Jamie Richards hopes his patience will be rewarded when Hinokami Kagura debuts after an extended preparation including five trials across the past two seasons.
“I've been happy with him. We've had this race in mind with him for a while and we're pleased with the way he's been trialling up – first-up in an open race. Going there confident he's going to run well but it's a little bit hard to assess how these young horses are really going to perform under the pressure comes on race day,” Richards said.
“He's a nice type of horse, he's by a good sire (Deep Field) here in Hong Kong and I look forward to him making his debut.”
Hinokami Kagura will be ridden by Karis Teetan.