Two of Hong Kong’s rising stars will clash at Sha Tin on Saturday (8 February) when speedsters Voyage Warrior (133lb) and Duke Wai (118lb) meet in the Class 2 Choi Hung Handicap (1200m).
A second win this season for Voyage Warrior not only would continue his trajectory towards the elite level but also help trainer Ricky Yiu in his quest for a first trainers’ premiership, having lost the lead to Francis Lui at Happy Valley on Wednesday night.
Yiu’s Australian-bred chestnut indicated a bright future when he cruised to an easy four length debut win last season and then added a further two successes, with his sole defeat that term coming at the hands of the subsequent G1 placed, Thanks Forever.
This season didn’t begin as expected though, and after disappointing as a dominant 1.7 favourite first-up, the four-year-old then faded to 10th next time. Those efforts prompted his handler to mix things up.
“Voyage Warrior has been back and forth to Conghua since then – he’s now more relaxed and he’s done well heading into the weekend,” Yiu said, before adding “he’s a fresh horse – it was six weeks ago when he won and he’s freshened up nicely since then.”
The Declaration Of War gelding bounced back from those defeats with an easy three-length score down the 1000m straight on New Year’s Day but Saturday’s test poses a different threat as he tackles 1200m for just the second time, having failed at his previous attempt.
Voyage Warrior has the distinction of being one of only three horses in the past decade to have dipped below 55 seconds over 1000m at Sha Tin, the others being Yiu’s world champion Sacred Kingdom and current track record holder, Aethero (54.69s).
“I think he’ll be fine around 1200 (metres), his pedigree suggests he may even get further but first we have to see how goes on the weekend,” the handler said.
“Although Voyage Warrior hasn’t done much over 1200 (metres) with only the one start early this season, he has shown me that he’s more mature, he’s settled down and he’s learned to relax. So, this time, with the good draw I hope they will go at a fast pace so we can take a sit and settle somewhere close in the run.”
Yiu is winless since 15 January and the five-win lead he held over Lui has been reeled in and overtaken. He now finds himself one win behind.
But on Saturday Voyage Warrior will lead eight stable entries, including the in-form Preciousship (121lb) in the day’s other Class 2, the Choi Wan Handicap (1600m), as Yiu seeks to regain some impetus.
Chad Schofield will ride Voyage Warrior who will break from gate one as the highest rated horse in the field, following an 11-point rating rise for his last-start win.
“He’s going to carry a lot more weight now and he’s obviously going around a bend over 1200 (metres) but he’s drawn perfectly and let’s hope he can live up to expectations,” Schofield said.
“I’m yet to ride him but since he started his career in Hong Kong he’s always had a massive rap on him and his win last start showed just how good he is.”
Schofield returns after missing eight meetings due to suspension and the 25-year-old is upbeat about his chances on the weekend as he resumes with a good book of nine rides.
“Any suspension in Hong Kong, even your stock-standard two meetings, you always find you lose momentum and it takes a while to pick up and get going again, but to kick off with nine rides and a few chances, it’s really pleasing and let’s hope I can convert them to a winner or two and get the ball rolling,” the jockey said.
Duke Wai takes on Voyage Warrior and 10 others as he seeks a fifth win on the bounce. Paul O’Sullivan’s gelding has been a revelation this term, skyrocketing 28 points in the ratings.
“He had a pretty good season last term and he’s just one horse who has kept improving, some go forward and some don’t, so it’s hard to predict how far he’ll go, but every time they win you get one closer to a defeat – although in saying that, I do think he’ll hold his own in Class 2,” O’Sullivan said.
The trainer though, admits that despite his winning progress, the four-year-old has an odd quirk.
“He often hops in the air as he leaves the gates and he’s done it since he first started trialling, so it’s just something he needs to sort out himself – sometimes he gets it right and sometimes he doesn’t,” O’Sullivan said.
His galloper got it right enough in the end the last four times and the man in the plate with an unblemished record aboard the New Zealand-bred charge is Karis Teetan.
“He’s done so well, especially his win down the straight when he came from so far behind,” Teetan said. “To see a horse do that in Hong Kong carrying top weight, you know there is something there, especially beating a horse who looks like he has a future.
That horse Teetan referenced is Lucky More, a two-time winner from five starts who has carried a big reputation since his before his debut.
Duke Wai’s reputation has grown too, although his frame is not exactly imposing. Weighing in at 1110lb, the Per Incanto gelding is the second-smallest horse in the race behind Gold Chest, who tips the scales at 1087lb, while Voyage Warrior is 1142lb.
“He’s surprised me because he’s not a very big horse, he’s tiny but he’s so brave and he loves to run, last time we found a bit of traffic but once he got out, he really flew to win a nice race,” Teetan said.
The Mauritian is up against a familiar foe, having partnered Voyage Warrior to his first two wins.
“When Voyage Warrior hopped on the scene, he blew everyone’s minds away, especially the manner in which he was winning his races,” Teetan said.
The 29-year-old was full of praise for Yiu’s galloper and believes he is capable of handling 1200 metres.
“When I rode him (Voyage Warrior) around a bend we had a bad draw and I told Ricky (Yiu) the horse can handle the distance and the bend. But it was the draw that day which did not help him – so for him to now have drawn barrier one, I think it should save him a few lengths,” Teetan said.
Teetan is aware though that this is not a two-horse war; two other last-start winners take their place in Kings Shield (118lb) and Hong Kong Bet (117lb), while Beauty Applause (116lb) and Computer Patch (114lb) boast striking resumes of their own.
“There are a few others in the race we need to respect also but there’s no doubt my horse will be competitive with them,” Teetan said.
Saturday’s 10-race card at Sha Tin commences at 12.15pm (AEDT 15:15) with the Class 4 Lok Wah Handicap (1000m).
– News from Hong Kong Jockey Club