Inner Flame worked in first-time blinkers at Sha Tin last Thursday (28 January) morning and trainer Douglas Whyte is pinning his hopes on not only the headgear but a change of scenery to reignite the lightly-raced gelding’s career as he makes his Happy Valley debut in the first section of the Class 3 Lai Chi Kok Handicap (1200m) tonight (Wednesday, 3 February).
“I’m hoping so (to recapturing last season’s form) – I’m hoping that a change does wonders, change is like a holiday so let’s take him to the Valley, a different environment, different atmosphere and different surface – he might enjoy it,” Whyte said.
The talented chestnut was a four-time winner from five starts last season but his rapid ascent through the grades has seemingly stalled with only one top three finish from four runs this campaign.
“Just to get him to focus (reason for applying blinkers), the racing is competitive enough at Happy Valley, so the blinkers going on is to help Jerry (Chau) out, to get him going and just to get him to hold the bridle,” Whyte said.
Having raced exclusively at Sha Tin across his entire nine-start career, Whyte’s 79-rater will have his first start under race conditions at the city circuit and does so with the blinkers applied in addition to his customary crossed nose band.
“It’s a bit of a wait and see, he’s carrying a lot of weight but he’s got a half decent draw and if he steps away he’ll have his chance,” Whyte said.
The Zoustar gelding earned 28 rating points for his first-season heroics and is looking to recapture his budding best that resulted in a career-high rating of 80, which also came with a reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most exciting rising stars.
“He’s feeling good, he’s had a bit of time between races, he’s a fresh kind of a horse and he’s trialled well at Happy Valley before so I’m just trying something different with him,” Whyte said.
Apprentice Jerry Chau’s seven-pound claim reduces the five-year-old’s allotted weight to 126lb as the highest-rated horse in the race, and on Wednesday night the duo will break from gate four against 11 opponents.
Inner Flame’s only look at Happy Valley came in November, 2019 when crossing the line third in a barrier trial over 1000m, while the youngster’s career zenith saw him beat off the talented President’s Choice and Mig Energy who he faces again, as well as Ping Hai Bravo who has subsequently returned three wins from his most recent four starts.
On the card, Whyte has five entries across the nine-race fixture including Smart Hunter, Sea Elite, last-start winner Smiling City and Helena Baby who tackles the finale.
Explosive Witness returns to happy hunting ground
While a Group 3 victor at Sha Tin last start, Explosive Witness (133lb) has proven a formidable force at Happy Valley and tonight trainer Caspar Fownes is optimistic of improving his already impressive record at the city circuit.
“That’s correct (to opting for this race instead of the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup), I looked at the programme, he’s got a great course and distance record so we may as well we take him back to the track he has done good things at,” Fownes said.
The Star Witness gelding scored in the Group 3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy Handicap (1000m) last month and while the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup (1200m) on 24 January seemed a likely next step, Fownes opted against it, instead plotting this race for his Australian-bred bay.
“He’s going great guns, he’s big and strong he just seems to keep on progressing and on paper this looked a good race for him even though he’s carrying top-weight but he looks like he is ready to go to the races again,” Fownes said.
“He’s had a lot of issues, it’s well-documented but like anything over here once horses start to toughen up and get over those niggling problems they can have you can actually start to train them and give them a full prep which is what we have been able to do with him.
“It’s been wonderful because the owners have been really patient, I appreciate that and it’s paid off well, he’s won four out of his last five starts and obviously he has a chance to give it a big run again on Wednesday.”
The 99-rater spent 22 days at Conghua before returning on 27 January, after tuning up at the Mainland Training Facility in a recent 800m grass trial when crossing the line second to stablemate Guy Dragon.
“Alexis (Badel) gets on well with him, so if the speed is genuine and he’s just in the spot where he can get into a nice rhythm then I’m sure he’ll give us that late sectional that he’s got,” the handler said.
The six-year-old breaks from gate three against nine rivals including Shining Ace (127lb), Hong Kong Bet (124lb), Massive Pocket (119lb), Multimillion (117lb), California Concord (115lb) and Larson (115lb).
Also among the field is Grateful Heart (122lb), an impressive three-time winner this season who faces Class 2 for the first time after demolishing his rivals by a comfortable two and a half lengths last time out.
The Written Tycoon gelding pairs with reigning champion jockey Zac Purton tonight, who this season has combined for 12 wins with trainer Danny Shum.
With 39 wins, Fownes leads the trainers’ championship but his margin at the top has been reduced by the in-form John Size, who sits on 37 having trained 14 winners through January.
“John Size is absolutely flying and good on him, I’m glad he’s chasing me hard and you know it’s going to be an exciting finish, I still think I have a lot of ammunition left.
“John is a great trainer and he’s had so many premierships and I’ve just had a little bit of a frustrating run these last few weeks,” Fownes said.
Fownes has saddled five winners through January as well as an exasperating 13 seconds.
Wednesday’s nine-race fixture at Happy Valley kicks off at 6.45pm with the second section of the Class 4 Shek Kip Mei Handicap (1200m).