Big Party will attempt to gatecrash the top tier of Hong Kong’s sprint division on Sunday (8 March) when he challenges high-end rivals Hot King Prawn, Mr Stunning and Thanks Forever in a Class 1 handicap masquerading as a bona fide Group race.
“This race will tell us whether or not he can go up another level,” trainer Frankie Lor said of his talented grey, who is shooting for a third win on the bounce, this time off a career-high rating of 107.
Champion sprinter Beat The Clock is the only top-four sprinter not in Sunday’s seven-runner Chek Lap Kok Handicap (1200m) and after his rare sub-par run over 1400m last time, there is a growing sense that the pecking order among the speed cohort is unsettled. Divisional honours are there for the taking heading into the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m) at the end of April and the Big Party camp is hoping a win on Sunday will thrust him into the mix.
Jockey Grant van Niekerk believes the Exceed And Excel gelding certainly has the attributes needed to challenge the sprint brigade’s high weights.
“If he puts it all together he’s very smart – if he puts in the effort he does when he wins, he’s as good as any horse,” he said.
Big Party delivered on his apparent promise last time out when a convincing winner of the G3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy Handicap (1000m), but after that late December victory, connections opted to side-step a clash with the victorious Beat The Clock in January’s G1 Centenary Sprint Cup (1200m).
“We gave him a break after his last run and I’ve given him two trials so he’s fresh and I expect him to run a good race,” said Lor, who is also responsible for Mr Stunning.
“His last trial was good but he missed the start – but he was very strong in the straight and I just hope he jumps well in the race. If he breaks well, I think he’s the better chance of winning than Mr Stunning because he only carries 115lb.”
Big Party has had knee issues in the past but Van Niekerk is not too worried about that, his main concern being the four-year-old’s mindset on the day.
“Frankie has got him feeling really great so at the moment he’s not showing those issues he’s had previously,” the South African said.
“He’s a funny horse actually – if he puts it together and is travelling well enough, he really turns it on, but on just one or two occasions in the past I’ve found he can be funny. He might decide to play up in the pens or he hangs out. But when he’s travelling behind horses and turns it on, he puts the race to bed pretty early.
“I think he’ll be competitive,” he continued. “His trial was very good with me and of course his last win was pretty impressive. On the day, if he brings his ‘A game’, he’ll be really competitive.”
The uncertainty around the sprint hierarchy is reflected in the jockey merry-go-round for Sunday’s feature. Big Party is the only horse set to be ridden by the same jockey as in its previous race.
Joao Moreira shifts to Hot King Prawn (133lb) in Beat The Clock’s absence, Zac Purton replaces Van Niekerk on Thanks Forever (127lb), Chad Schofield fills Purton’s boots on Full Of Beauty (131lb), Matthew Chadwick takes over from Schofield on Voyage Warrior (113lb), Alfred Chan replaces Alexis Badel on Country Star (113lb) and Karis Teetan regains the reins on Mr Stunning (132lb) from Hugh Bowman.
Purton is hoping another fine showing from the in-form Thanks Forever – runner-up in the Centenary Sprint Cup – can book his ticket to the G1 Al Quoz Sprint (1200m) at Meydan.
“He’s certainly gone to another level, there’s been no fluke about the way he’s been running. He’s drawn gate four, so if he shows some speed he can get in the right spot and hopefully he runs well into a possible race in Dubai – there’s no reason why he’s not going to,” the champion jockey said.
Moreira, meanwhile, is looking forward to reacquainting with the popular grey Hot King Prawn, a horse he last partnered when beaten as favourite in the 2018 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint.
“I never thought it had been so long – 15 months have gone quickly. I haven’t been on him as many times as I would have liked but I have a very high opinion of this horse and he has shown that he’s a very good horse,” Moreira said.
The John Size-trained galloper is seeking a first win this term having placed second in December’s G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint and then third in both the Centenary Sprint Cup and G1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup (1400m).
“He hasn’t won a Group 1 race in his career but I think it’s just a matter of time before he gets his first and there may be more in the future. If he does end the season as the best sprinter it would be no surprise to me,” Moreira said.
“On Sunday he has top-weight on his back so he’ll have to be very tough to get the job done, and even though I think he’s capable I have to respect those lighter-weighted horses in the race, particularly the other grey, Big Party.”
Karis Teetan earned his first and to date only Sha Tin Group 1 win aboard Mr Stunning, ahead of Hot King Prawn, in the 2018 Hong Kong Sprint and the Mauritian is back on the Lor-trained galloper for the first time since January 2019, having been jocked off.
“I’m happy to be riding him again,” Teetan said. “When Frankie asked me, I wanted to sit on the horse again because he has been good to me, especially as it might be his last season.
“On ability, he could be the best horse in the race but he’s also the oldest and he’s had a few issues. I think it’s a good race for him because it’s not a big field but he’s not at his peak anymore. There are younger horses who seem to be doing better than him at the moment but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to win the race because he has that ability – his three runs this season haven’t been a disaster, he’s still running pretty well.”
Teetan puts the jockey-go-round down to the Hong Kong way of things.
“With Beat The Clock not in the race, Joao was always going to ride Hot King Prawn – everyone picked their horse and ended up moving around. This is Hong Kong – you try to get on the right horse and things are pretty tight at the moment,” he said.
Van Niekerk, who lost the Big Party ride last season only to regain it in December, and who could have been on Thanks Forever on Sunday under different circumstances, also sees it as a reflection of how competitive the circuit is.
“As long as you can try to get on another ride it’s good but when you’re taken off a horse it’s never nice, especially if it’s in a Group race. I was taken off Thanks Forever but I’m back on Big Party so it’s good – it doesn’t always happen like that,” he said.
“It’s horse racing, you’re always going to get beaten at times so when a horse does get beaten the quickest way out is to blame the jockey, which is a little bit unfair on us because it’s very competitive out there – it’s ruthless, you always have to be at your best and if it goes wrong you get sidelined.
“You have to put that to the side and keep going because if you keep dwelling on the negatives it just drags you back, so you have to keep going and be lucky enough to get the good rides back again. You have to keep proving yourself to the trainers.”
Sunday’s 11-race action starts at 12 noon (AEDT 15:00) with the Class 5 Yi O Handicap (1400m).
– News from Hong Kong Jockey Club