Witness Hunter stalks Griffin Trophy prize, Dark Dream on Derby road

Witness Hunter (in green) doubles up with his win over the course and distance last start. Source: HKJC.

Witness Hunter will attempt to wrap up a hat-trick when he takes on seven fellow young guns in the Griffin Trophy (1400m) at Sha Tin’s pre-Christmas fixture on Sunday, 23 December.

Frankie Lor’s Star Witness three-year-old has looked a cut above the grade in Class 4 handicaps at his last two starts, closing strongly for cosy victories under Zac Purton. With Hong Kong’s champion jockey suspended for the Christmas period, in-form Brazilian ace Silvestre de Sousa takes the reins for a contest that in recent years has gone to the likes of two-time G1 winner Pakistan Star and BMW Hong Kong Derby hero Luger.

“He’s in good form,” Lor said during this morning’s (Friday, 21 December) track work session at Sha Tin. “He’s only a three-year-old so I gave him a break – more than a month – after his last run. I gave him two more barrier trials and then straight to this race.”

The HK$2 million eight-runner contest is for three-year-olds which were unraced when they arrived in Hong Kong.

This year’s Griffin Trophy also features the Danny Shum-trained Perfect Match – another on a hat-trick after winning his last two – while Richard Gibson will saddle the Hong Kong International Sale Graduate Nordic Warrior, a full-brother to European champion sprinter Slade Power.

“Perfect Match will be hard to beat,” Lor opined. “Later on I think Witness Hunter will go over farther than this distance. He’s still improving so it’s hard to say at this moment just how much he might improve over time but I hope he can go up to Class 2 and then we’ll see.”

Dream on Classic trail

De Sousa has also picked up the ride on the Lor-trained Dark Dream (122lb) in what is arguably the afternoon’s most fascinating race, the Class 2 Long Ke Handicap. Last year’s edition of the 2000m contest went to Exultant, successful in the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) earlier this month and a leading player in last season’s Four-Year-Old Classic Series.

The Classic Series, which kicks off with the Hong Kong Classic Mile on 27 January, is Dark Dream’s first big target en route to the BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) in March. The G1 Queensland Derby (2200m) winner put in a solid first Hong Kong run under Purton two weeks ago when third to the re-opposing Insayshable (132lb) in a 1600m Class 2 handicap.

“Dark Dream ran a good race first time out but I think the time was a bit slow so that’s why I’ve put him up to 2000 (metres). Zac came back to me and said he needed a little bit farther,” Lor said.

“The slow pace meant that when some horses went past him he pulled a bit, so I think he will improve for that experience. The jockey galloped him for the first time on Thursday and the horse looked good.”

Lor’s crop of four-year-old’s also includes Furore, Heavenly Thought, Superich and Kings Shield.

“At this moment, Dark Dream’s form is better than my other four-year-olds but there are still two or three months to go, so we’ll see,” the trainer said.

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Dark Dream faces a field of tough opponents, including the Shum-trained Brazilian G1-winning import Harmony Victory (122lb), whose win last time out placed him high in the early Derby pecking order.

And two older stagers from the Lor camp will also oppose – the rising five-year-old Glorious Artist (113lb) and the largely frustrating one-time Derby hope Rocketeer (113lb). The former has won two of seven starts but has not yet raced on the Sha Tin turf, while the latter is without a win since June 2017.

“The distance is no problem for Glorious Artist we know the all-weather track and Happy Valley are good for this horse so we need to try him on the Sha Tin turf,” Lor said. “Rocketeer’s a morning star but in the race, when he has a good position in the straight, he usually does not finish.”

The Tony Cruz-trained Super Chic (128lb) is another on a hat-trick, while Dinozzo (133lb), Prawn Baba (132lb) and Giant Turtle (113lb) complete the line-up of nine.

Styling speed

Styling City is making his name as one of Hong Kong’s smartest Griffins but will not take his place in the Griffin Trophy, with trainer John Moore preferring to keep the chestnut to the straight track in the Class 2 Chek Keng Handicap (1000m).

“I’ve got a lot of time for him and these races come along in the programme so we’re just sticking to them in turn – stick to the 1000 (metres) and as we run out of programme we can put him over a little more ground and teach him to wait,” Moore said.

Douglas Whyte has partnered the gelding to two recent wins, making that four wins from six career starts for the Starspangledbanner gelding.

“His work on Thursday morning was exceptional. I don’t see any problem with gate six and he’s the one to beat for sure; there’s definitely upside. He’s going to Class 1,” Moore added.