It's a rare thing to see a new import make its Hong Kong debut just two weeks before an intended run in the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races, but that's the plan for Northern Superstar.
The five-year-old mixed it with the very best in South Africa and is gearing up for a tilt at some notable Group 1 rivals in the G1 Hong Kong Cup (2000m) in two weeks' time, via Sunday's Class 1 Chevalier Cup Handicap (1600m).
Trainer Tony Millard, the man behind Ambitious Dragon's Hong Kong Mile win in 2012, is not fazed by the unorthodox route into Hong Kong's richest race. “It was always the plan to go to the Cup – that's the type of horse he is,” he said.
Northern Superstar (122lb), previously named Edict Of Nantes, won the G1 Cape Derby and G1 Daily News 2000 in his homeland. He is set to line up in the weekend's quality-packed 13-runner feature off a domestic rating of 98 and with three barrier trials under his belt as preparation.
“He's been off for a long time, he's had some barrier trials and I think there's going to be a question mark about his fitness, but he's doing well,” said jockey Grant Van Niekerk.
“Each trial has been an improvement and Mr. Millard seems to be happy with him so I'm hoping he runs a good race.”
Northern Superstar has not raced in almost a year. A long quarantine process meant that he took his first step onto the Sha Tin training track less than three months ago, but Millard is pleased with his charge's progress, despite a small setback.
“It is what it is, you can only play the cards that you're dealt,” the handler said.
“It's come very close and we had a little bit of a setback, which cost us a week, otherwise he would have run last weekend, but he's doing a lot of things right. He got an infection in his hock, so we just gave him antibiotics – it wasn't serious but it just cost us some days.
“The schedule is pretty tight but we've given him a grass workout and he's worked nicely,” he added.
The Count Dubois gelding appears to have improved with each barrier trial. The latest, a 1200m outing on the dirt track 17 days ago, saw him travel wide and run on steadily down the straight.
“He would have never been in a barrier trial in his life (before he came here) so he wouldn't know about that dirt coming back at you. He's done exactly what we wanted, we would have just liked for it (the race) to have been a month back,” Millard said.
And the handler is not expecting fireworks on Sunday, just “a nice, solid run” before heading into the HK$28 million showpiece on 9 December.
“If he wins, it would be great, if he runs a good race that would be even better. We just want to see him run well – we just need to give him time and respect and I think he'll be a really nice horse in Hong Kong,” he said.
Millard believes that this year's Hong Kong Cup, which has attracted 11 entrants, might not be the toughest edition ever staged.
“It looks like it's quite open,” he said.
With that in mind, Van Niekerk is hoping Northern Superstar might take advantage. He will have to adapt quickly if he is to do so – and then show the ability that carried him to the top in his homeland.
“He's an easy horse, he's very intelligent and he knows what to do,” the jockey said. “He was like that in South Africa and hasn't really put a foot wrong, so I'm hoping he can bring the same sort of form to here.”
The Chevalier Cup features a slew of talented handicappers and potential top-notchers, Good Standing (115lb), Rattan (132lb) and Rise High (131lb) among them.
Rise High appeared to be destined for the top echelon after an impressive hat-trick of handicap wins late last term, so it was a knock to connections when the Caspar Fownes-trained gelding ran 10th off a light weight under Alberto Sanna behind Beauty Generation in the G2 Sha Tin Trophy first-up.
Since that disappointment, though, Zac Purton – who partnered Rise High to all three of last season's wins and is back in the irons on Sunday – has had time to reflect.
“I thought, in hindsight, it was a better run that it looked,” he said. “He was three wide without cover and he actually didn't get beaten that far. I know he had a low weight and everyone was expecting him to kick on, but it was a quality field and he was early on in his prep, so I think he'll come on from that. I think he'll run better this time.”
Purton has not lost faith that the Irish G3 winner might yet make it in the higher grades.
“It was only at the end of last season that he started to wrap his head around racing properly and started to do things how you'd like to see him do them,” he said. “I get the feeling it's in there somewhere, it's just a matter of drawing it out and harnessing it.”
Sunday's Sha Tin action starts at 12.45pm with the Class 4 Chevalier Aluminium Engineering Handicap (1000m).
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