Conte brought the fireworks to Sha Tin’s New Year fixture, landing the G3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup Handicap (1400m) in brilliant style this afternoon (Tuesday, 1 January) on what proved to be a day for Hong Kong’s new breed.
The big bay’s victory was one of five on the 11-race card for trainer John Size and his stable jockey Joao Moreira, and left the latter enthusing about his mount.
“I’m very excited. I believe we’re going to see more upside,” the Brazilian said after the five-year-old had stopped the clock at 1m 20.85s, eased down and still only 0.54s off the track record.
The manner of success, allied to the Starcraft gelding’s progressive back story – featuring seven wins now from nine races – set tongues wagging post-race about a possible tilt at Beauty Generation in the G1 Stewards’ Cup (1600m) three weeks from now.
Size has that race on his radar, if not yet locked in. “I’ll certainly have to consider it,” the champion trainer said. “I’ll weigh it up but he’s run out of other options very fast – if he doesn’t go there he stays home in the box.”
Today’s race was Conte’s first in a Group race, having scored in Class 2 the time before. He handled the rise in quality with aplomb, relishing his low weight (117lb) as he wound up wide on the home turn and quickened smartly from a berth at the handy end of midfield, his raking stride powering through the final 400m in 22.25s.
“We didn’t have in mind to ride him as the race played out,” Moreira confessed. “But I knew things might play out like that and he’s always given me the confidence that if he was ridden like that he was going to do what he’s done today.
“But what he showed us there exceeded what I expected. His acceleration turning for home – it’s outstanding!”
So, could Conte be a star in waiting?
“I wouldn’t say that yet,” Moreira cautioned. “But if there are horses that are picking up to get there, he would be one of those few.
“I love everything about this horse; his character, his personality, his attitude, his movement; the way he responds when you ask, he just does it for you. What I really love is when you put him under pressure he may not look like he’s dashing but I can tell you, he’s going fast.
“Probably because he’s big and he’s covering lot of ground, it doesn’t look as if he’s quickening like he is,” the rider added.
The Frankie Lor-trained Morethanlucky (113lb) kept on to finish three quarters of a length second under Alexis Badel, who said: “The winner has a lot of class and a good turn of foot but my horse kept battling all the way.”
Conte returned the 1.7 favourite and was one of eight market leaders to win. The remaining three were all second pick in the betting.
Turnover was the highest so far this season at HK$1.715 billion, while crowd numbers topped 84,000.
Moreira and Size steamed to a five-timer when the four-year-olds Nicconi Express and Waikuku took the last two races, adding to the earlier victories with two more of that age group, Full Of Beauty and Picken.
“Waikuku jumped and travelled on the bridle,” Moreira said. “When I put him upside the leader he looked the other guy in the eye and ran away from him. The sky could be the limit – he feels like he could be a Derby type because he moves like a stayer.”
Nicconi Express’s three quarter-length score over the well-regarded Vincy in the Class 3 Lin Fa Shan Handicap (1600m), off a rating of 73, suggested the Four-Year-Old Classic Series might be within his scope too.
“Moreira and De Sousa (who rode Nicconi Express first-up) were both complimentary about the horse and they were correct, that he wanted the slower tempo of the 1600 (metres) where he can curl up and sprint. It’s only a Class 3 but he did a job,” Size said.
Moreira was in turn complimentary about Full Of Beauty’s career debut win. The Darci Brahma gelding quickened away from his Class 4 rivals only to show signs of greenness in front. The bay held on by a diminishing short-head from Lakeshore Eagle.
“He probably got in front a bit early and didn’t know what he was there for,” Moreira said. “He started looking around, waiting for the others to come and challenge and the second horse really came flashing home so gave him no guide. He went by like a bullet.”
Regency Legend looked a cut above in taking his record to two from two. The Danny Shum-trained three-year-old quickened to a comfortable win in the Class 2 1200m under Zac Purton.
“We’ll keep him going this season but he can get stronger. I feel that he’s 90 percent fit at this stage, I’m not pushing him, just letting it come naturally,” Shum said, adding, “When he’s four years old he’ll be stronger and then we can think about the International Races.”
Shum landed a brace when Karis Teetan guided Young Legend to a breakthrough Hong Kong win.
Big Party, meanwhile, sauntered to a Class 3 score at the 1200m trip for Lor and jockey Grant van Niekerk.
“He’s a nice horse, he’s still learning,” Lor said. “He needed to learn to relax more in the race, because you can see sometimes in the mornings or in his trials, he pulls a bit hard. He relaxed a bit better.”
The first Hong Kong win of 2019 went to trainer Jimmy Ting, who also happened to have saddled up the season’s very first winner back on 2 September. Smiling Pride rewarded favourite backers under Badel in the 1600m Class 4 contest.
Silvestre de Sousa teamed with trainer Benno Yung to land race three atop Hard Promise, while Purton nabbed the first leg of a double when the Me Tsui-trained Money Winner opened his account at start 24 in the 1600m Class 5.