It took a photo-finish...for fifth-place...in the third and last race of the International Jockeys' Championship at Happy Valley Racecourse in Hong Kong Wednesday night, and by the slimmest of margins, Australian Damien Oliver earned the award.
Oliver defeated U.S. rider Victor Espinoza by one point, 20-19, to win the HK$200,000 first prize (approximately $26,500). Two-time winner Frankie Dettori fell from his mount in the first race and didn't compete on the rest of the card. His mount, Champion Speed, broke down turning for home and Dettori jumped off the horse after they had stopped. Taken to the hospital as a precaution, he was diagnosed with a twisted ankle. Dettori is expected to ride in Sunday's International Races at Sha Tin.
Oliver won the first race in the series aboard the 7-1 shot Ace Academy. Espinoza ran third aboard Flying Kenny. The races in the series were three, four, and six on the seven-race card.
Scoring for the Jockeys' Challenge was 12-6-4-3-2 for the top five finishers. In the second leg of the series, the winner was local jockey Howard Cheng on Shanghai Friend, with Oliver finishing second aboard favorite Zerubbabel. Espinoza gained two points for finishing fifth on Saluzi.
For the third race, for Espinoza to win the Championship, he had to win with both Oliver and Cheng finishing sixth or worse. It came down to a photo as Espinoza ran away with the race after being next to last turning for home aboard the 35-1 Classa Win. Oliver finished in a blanket for fifth and sixth. His fifth-place posting gave him two points to push him over Espinoza's total. Espinoza earned HK$100,000 for finishing second (approx. $13,250).
"I've never been so happy to run fifth," an exuberant Oliver said after the Championship. He was runner-up in the event in 2001. "I had a great night. In the last race, I had a handful of horse the last 100 meters and I have nowhere to go. I think I could have been third."
"It helps to have experience here," Oliver said of the odd, seven-furlong layout of Happy Valley. "On the form, I knew in the first two races I had good chances. I just wanted to get some points in the last.
"It's fantastic," he said of the experience. "You look at the jockeys¡Xyou couldn't assemble a better field of jockeys."
"It's just one of those things," Espinoza said following his narrow defeat. "I came here to win, but I couldn't have asked for more.
"The track...it's different. After the first two races, I was fine. I wish I could have ridden in a few more races. I hope I will be back here next year."
Espinoza also said the racing style at Happy Valley is different. "From the gate, they (the riders) take off to get position, then as they go into the first turn, they pull back."