Butterfield took a stride forward on the road to the BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) with a smart success in the Class 2 Azalea Handicap (1800m) at Sha Tin yesterday afternoon (Sunday, 2 February).
The race had been billed as something of a Derby trial, with six eligible runners in the field of 13, headed by the high profile trio Enjoying (122lb), Columbus County (121lb) and Super Oasis (123lb).
But it was trainer Danny Shum’s South American import – already a dual Group 1-winning Derby hero in Brazil when named Halston – who took the spoils and the kudos.
“The owner has nice expectations, he bought him from Brazil for nice money, not too expensive, but he’s a good horse,” Shum said.
“I have to see how he pulls up but I’m not sure whether or not he will already have enough rating points for the Derby – if he has, we might go straight there. But I’ll talk to the owner and we’ll make a decision whether or not we run in the Classic Cup next.”
The chestnut, rated 84 for today’s test, would meet the highly-regarded Hong Kong Classic Mile one-two of Golden Sixty and More Than This should he line up in the second leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, the Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m) in three weeks’ time.
Butterfield (120lb) snared his first Hong Kong win under a positive ride from Grant van Niekerk. The South African took a sit behind the front-running Classic Beauty (109lb), shifted out at the 400m mark and was soon in the clear.
The son of Setembro Chove was assailed on either flank close to home but kept on strongly to win by half a length from the Caspar Fownes-trained Columbus County, with High Rev third and Super Oasis fourth.
“I told Grant to follow the leader because there was no pace in this race; he was drawn one and he got a slow pace so he could do that,” Shum said.
Van Niekerk is looking forward to future assignments, with Butterfield having shown improvement in the most recent three of five runs since import.
“I think he has ability and if he is a little further back in the run it won’t be a problem. He’s still learning about racing in Hong Kong and I think he’ll just keep getting better,” Van Niekerk said.
Shum revealed that a gelding operation four days after Butterfield’s first run this season has been key to his progress.
“Before he was gelded he was too keen and didn’t perform well but since he’s been gelded he’s calmer and he has run well his last two races,” he said.
Fownes, meanwhile, was a tad deflated with runner-up Columbus County who was sent off the 3.8 second-favourite.
“For me, he was disappointing because I thought at the 200 (metres) we had it covered, so I might have to think about whether he needs a pair of cups on,” the trainer said.
“He seemed to get there but didn’t really go on with it, so there’s a chance I’ll put a pair of blinkers or some change of equipment on him – I don’t think he’ll pull with that equipment but it might just have the desired effect when it matters.
“I thought we’d get the win today. Then again, you get beat half a length, you can’t complain too much!”
Fownes may side-step the Classic Cup in favour of a Class 2 2000m contest on the same day (23 February).
“I’m leaning towards going to the 2000-metre Class 2 rather than the Classic Cup next but I’ll have a think about it and we’ll obviously make the Classic Cup entry. His best racing is ahead of him and we just hope we can fine-tune him for the big day.”
Van Niekerk and Shum sealed a double together: Butterfield followed the earlier success of Clear Choice in the Class 3 Lily Handicap (1650m, dirt).