Jolly Banner left the Sha Tin crowd stunned and had Matthew Poon whooping past the winning post with an improbable victory in the Group 3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy Handicap (1000m) this afternoon, Sunday, 6 January.
“That surprised me!” Poon said, echoing the babble of incredulity so audible around the racecourse.
And no wonder. The seven-year-old, better known as a smart handicapper over 1400m and a mile, had just seen off champion sprinter Ivictory (133lb) and rising talent Styling City to land a first Group race success at his first attempt at 1000m.
Trainer Ricky Yiu was also among the shocked. Like Poon, though, he wore his astonishment with a smile.
“Six runners and a 90/1 winner: We don’t mind surprises!” Yiu beamed.
“He’s a very honest horse, so I’m not surprised he finished a good race. But winning? That’s a big surprise. It’s a big plus for him.”
For Poon, the win brought double delight. It was his first Group race success in his home town.
“It’s my first Group 3 in Hong Kong, so I was a bit excited. I’ve won two Group 3 races in Singapore but never before here,” he said.
Jolly Banner was, unsurprisingly, at the tail of the six-runner field and under the pump as G1 winner and 2.1 favourite Ivictory edged to the front with 450m remaining in the straight track charge. Also outpaced at that juncture, but in closer touch, was the John Moore-trained Styling City.
But Ivictory headed into this race off three below-par runs, and, having seen off the early pace-setter Fabulous One, the top-weight soon began to send out alarm signals under Joao Moreira.
With 150m to race, the game Jolly Banner’s willingness had carried him past his fellow chasers and beyond Ivictory. The Lonhro gelding kept on galloping to a length and a quarter score while behind him Styling City (3.1) ran on for second and Wishful Thinker (3.7) for third.
“He wasn’t travelling well and I made every effort to keep him in touch, so I was surprised he could win,” Poon said.
Yiu admitted that the small field had swung connections towards testing the 101-rated Jolly Banner over the minimum distance against specialist sprinters.
“There are limited opportunities for this horse, so after last start I decided to take a chance at the 1000 (metres), it was a small field and there’s good prize money so I told the owner to just go for it,” he said.
“The jockey gave him a good warm-up to the start and he jumped better than his previous race. I said to Matthew before, ‘stay in touch, you have to stay in touch to be competitive,’ and as soon as he asked the horse, the horse responded tremendously.”
Ivictory faded to fourth, the concession of 18lb-plus to all his rivals proving too much of a task.
“I think it was a combination of factors: he’s not at his best and so I think the handicap got him as well. He did everything he needed to leading into the race but then in the race itself he was disappointing,” Moreira said.
Size will back off the horse, who wore first-time blinkers today.
“I’ll give him a break,” the champion trainer said.
“I’ve got to speak to the owners first but there doesn’t seem to be much wrong with the horse after the race – and I’ve been looking and looking – so we’ll just give him a break and see if he changes his mind.”
For Styling City, the race was perhaps one too many at the minimum but Moore is adamant that the three-year-old is still on target for a fine future.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “He’s lost that early dash, so I’ll recommend to the owner that we go 1200 next time. And he was knocked sideways by the winner. Douglas (Whyte) had to pick him up and get him balanced.”
The Starspangledbanner gelding ran from a rating 12lb out of the handicap, while Whyte added a further 2lb allowable over-weight.
The winning time was 56.63s, with Jolly Banner running the final 400m in 22.17s.