The Chinese New Year program Thursday at Hong Kong's Sha Tin Racecourse was highlighted by group I victories by a leading candidate for next month's Hong Kong Derby and by a son of Chief's Crown. (According to the Chinese calendar, 2002 is the Year of the Horse).
Charming City, an Australian-bred son of Chief's Crown, took the HK$4.5-million Bauhinia Sprint Trophy (HK-I), the first leg of the 2001-2002 Champion Sprint Series.
Ridden by Basil Marcus, Charming City, at odds of almost 8/1, was always prominent on the far rail and ran on strongly to hold off the late run by Solid Contact, who finished a half-length behind the winner. Triple Expresso finished 1 1/2 lengths further back in third.
Winning trainer David Hayes said the remaining two legs of the Champion Sprint Series are in Charming City's sights now.
"We'll keep him for the Centenary Sprint Cup (on March 17) and the Chairman's Sprint Prize (on April 21) now. He's a top-line Hong Kong sprinter and he deserves to take his chance in those big sprints" said Hayes.
A bonus of HK$2 million goes to the winner of each of the three legs of the Champion Sprint Series. A consolation HK$800,000 is awarded to the winner of two out of the three legs.
The victory was the second in a group I even in Hong Kong for Charming City, who a year ago won the Hong Kong Classic Mile.
In this year's edition of the HK$8-million Classic Mile (HK-I) on Thursday, Olympic Express unleashed an impressive turn of foot to defeat Jeune King Prawn and Aucash. The winner raced wide and off the pace through the early stages before catching the pacesetters with 200 meters to go. The Ivan Allan trainee then drew clear for a 2 1/4-length victory at 13-2 odds. Super Molly stayed on late to snatch the runner-up position from Jeune King Prawn.
The victory stamped Olympic Express as the highest rated 4-year-old in Hong Kong and a strong candidate for the March 17 HK Derby.
"He's definitely the right of kind of horse for the Derby. I can't wait," winning jockey Weichong Marwing said on unsaddling.
Hong Kong Jockey Club Steward Larry Yung purchased Olympic Express from Newmarket trainer James Fanshawe's stable last summer. The racing under the name Ecclesiastical, the colt finished second in Royal Ascot's Britannia Handicap.
Despite his convincing win, Allan wasn't ready to make any big statements about his new star.
"I don't want to make any predictions about the Derby. It's the Classic Mile that we have won and the Derby is next month," he said. "But he is obviously a good horse. I told Mr Yung that he was 90% ready today and we have more to look forward to next month. He will be better over 2000 metres," Allan added.
The Thursday card at Sha Tin was witnessed by on-track attendance of 88,864. With an additional 9,217 fans at the cross-betting facilities at Happy Valley, the day's total attendance represented a gain from last year's combined crowd of 93,256. A total of HK$1.255 billion was wagered Thursday.