Ricky Yiu is enjoying his best season ever in terms of his numerical success and on Sunday (26 April) at Sha Tin he will attempt to cap it with a Group 1 win.
Voyage Warrior stunned the big guns with a front-running victory in the Group 2 Sprint Cup (1200m) earlier this month and the latest hope to rise from Yiu’s nursery of talented sprinter-milers will attempt to prove that was no fluke with a follow up in the HK$18 million Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m).
“He’s an improving young horse and I still can’t see the bottom of him yet – there’s a lot still to find out. He’ll do well again over 1200 metres on the big day,” Yiu said.
The handler heads towards FWD Champions Day with his string in sublime form. On Sunday (19 April) past he notched a treble that took his tally to a personal best 51 and pushed him four wins clear of the pack in his quest for a first champion trainer title.
But while Yiu, 62, has advanced into new territory in terms of wins accrued, preparing top-class speedsters is old turf to him. He trained the mighty Sacred Kingdom to 17 wins and world champion status, Amber Sky followed as a Group 1 hero, notably when winning the Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai, and Fairy King Prawn was, like Sacred Kingdom, a Hong Kong Sprint victor.
Voyage Warrior has some ground to make up on that trio but Yiu is pinning his hopes on the second-season galloper finding further improvement. The chestnut has, after all, raced only 10 times for five wins, having debuted in March of last year.
The Australian-bred wowed observers with a 54.89s blitz down the 1000m straight at his second career outing – Sunday’s rival Aethero’s track record stands at 54.69s – but having mixed his form this term, he has shown positive signs again recently. His handler credited the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s facility at Conghua in Mainland China.
“We’re still learning about him, we’ve been training him up at Conghua and since he’s gone there he’s matured, he’s not pulling, he’s a lot more relaxed, there’s been a clear benefit from him being in Conghua,” Yiu said. “Not long after the last race we sent him back to Conghua and he enjoys it up there. He’s doing well and all the feedback I’ve had from there has been good. He’ll arrive at Sha Tin later this week.”
A cheeky win
Vincent Ho was the pilot for the Declaration Of War four-year-old’s latest and biggest success and he is under no illusions about that outcome, gained from the front, without pressure for the lead, and on rain-affected ground.
“I stole that race – it was a cheeky win!” Ho said.
“I think it was a big factor last time that he got to the front and it was difficult for them to chase me from behind that day. I think I got all the advantages – no one wanted to lead so I got a really soft lead. Because of the ground being wet, they couldn’t make it up and I think on normal ground it will be tougher.”
Ho, like Yiu, believes his mount can build on that performance though.
“If he has improved, he’s still got ability to be there in the finish,” the rider said. “He’s still young, he hasn’t been racing for a long time and if he has improved his chance will of course be higher.”
Yiu does not hold with the view that Voyage Warrior needs to enjoy a soft lead to be effective but then there are the circumstances of his last win, on easy going and off steady fractions of 24.27s, 22.29s and 22.92s – against standard for the class of 23.80s, 22.15 and 22.45s.
“This Group 1 against the same company as last time will be very interesting because it might not be necessary to lead again. I’ll leave it to the jockey – a lot will depend on the draw,” the trainer said.
“Before the last race, I didn’t tie down Vincent with instructions but I’m still thinking whether or not there was a track bias last time, whether the cut in the ground was that big of a factor – but he’s kept on improving and we’ll find out on Sunday.”
Yiu has flown high at the top of the Hong Kong trainers’ premiership for most of this season. His prominence is the result of a number of factors coalescing.
Prime among those is that he is a savvy horseman who can train to a high standard; also, the big two, John Size and John Moore, have not been able put high scores on the board; Yiu has a solid number of good young gallopers with upside.
“I have pretty nice stock this season – the young ones coming through, they’re horses of nice quality. Individually they’re performing and collectively that means the stable is getting good results,” he said.
But another key element seems to be that he he has found an assistant trainer with whom he meshes perfectly, his son Eric Yiu.
“All of a sudden I’ve found myself with a good partner!” the trainer laughs.
“He helps me a lot. This is his second season as assistant trainer and I half-leave the stable matters to him. He’s been riding since he was 11 or 12 and then he went to study overseas for about 10 years but he came back and wanted to join the Club. Like me, he’s in love with the horses – that’s how it works.”
Yiu’s love of horses has seen him develop a reputation as a fine judge of young stock. Fairy King Prawn, Sacred Kingdom and Amber Sky were all brought into Hong Kong as unraced youngsters, or Privately Purchased Griffins (PPG) as they’re known in the local system.
He bought Voyage Warrior out of the 2017 New Zealand Bloodstock Ready To Run Sale for NZ$280,000.
“The majority of the young horses, I bought them as a yearlings or like with Voyage Warrior I got him out of the two-year-old sale and I enjoy that side of it. I enjoy selecting the young horses at the sales, it’s become one of my hobbies and I’ve had a bit of success doing this,” he said.
“There’s no secret, I just keep watching and find the horses I like, the ones that are my cup of tea. In all these years, they’ve mainly been sprinter-milers. I know that works for me.”
Ho is most closely allied to Yiu’s nearest pursuer in the premiership race, Francis Lui, but he has also ridden 10 wins this term for the Yiu stable and knows the set-up well.
“He’s easy to ride for. His son is doing a good job helping him so as a team I think they’re doing very well,” Ho said.
“They have a lot more new horses coming through and they’re good young horses. It’s going to be tough for Francis – his new horses need to improve and come through quickly if he’s to get a chance of winning the title. Most of his older horses, their ratings are already quite high, so it’ll be difficult as we get closer to the end of the season. We just hope the new horses can come along.
“Ricky is doing really well,” he continued. “I think they’ve got a good team now and things are going strongly for them. I’d like to ride more for them, of course I want to help Francis to get the championship but it’s going to be tough.”
With 23 meetings remaining this season, Yiu is not counting his chickens when it comes to the premiership but he does “definitely believe” his string is “good enough” to go on and win the title. On Sunday, he’ll know whether or not Voyage Warrior has what it takes to give him a first Group 1 win since the night in March 2014 when Amber Sky dazzled in Dubai.