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Monday, Mar 27, 2023

Battle for the ages

Jockey Vincent Ho is holding firm in his belief Golden Sixty will be able to bounce back in Sunday’s HK$12 million G1 Stewards’ Cup when Hong Kong’s champion lines up against Romantic Warrior and California Spangle.
The declared starters list for the 1,600-meter race promises a blockbuster rematch between Golden Sixty and California Spangle, with last year’s winner Waikuku looking to gatecrash the party in a bid for a title repeat. Beauty Joy, Panfield and Russian Emperor round out a tight group of seven expected to go to post at Sha Tin.

Both Romantic Warrior and California Spangle take their places following Group 1 wins at the 2022 LONGINES Hong Kong International Races, while Golden Sixty – now a seven-year-old – heads into the contest following a defeat and potentially as an underdog.

“They’re five years old, they’re young. They should be in their prime,” Ho says of Romantic Warrior and California Spangle. “But we’re mentally more mature and we have all the experience. And physically Golden Sixty has still got it, I believe we can do it.”

Golden Sixty and California Spangle stepped out for a barrier trial at Sha Tin on Tuesday last week over 1,200m on dirt, with California Spangle leading his older rival home in similar fashion to his 2022 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile victory.

“I’m looking forward to it, two young and very good horses against the more mature guy, so I’m very much looking forward to it,” Ho says.

At the barrier trial, California Spangle turned in a time of one minute, 09.85 seconds after leading from start to finish. Golden Sixty was second, with Beauty Tycoon crossing the line in third place.

“Golden Sixty trialled very well, he had only been doing light work and cruising after last month, so this trial got him to work a little bit for the big race,” Ho says. “He jumped very well, I feel his confidence in the straight and he picked up very well. I’m very happy with him.”

The two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year has suffered only three defeats across his last 22 runs, but while Golden Sixty failed to reel in California Spangle at the 2022 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile last December, the Francis Lui-trained thoroughbred overhauled his younger adversary in a stunning victory over 1,600m in their prior meeting at the 2022 G2 BOCHK Private Wealth Jockey Club Mile.

Just like Ho, Lui was was pleased with the effort at the barrier trial.

“It was a nice trial, he looks better compared to his last barrier trial. Last time he threw a shoe when he jumped out of the gates,” Lui says. “He needed this one, especially with Romantic Warrior and California Spangle in the upcoming race.”

Lui remains wary of Romantic Warrior as he cuts back on distance to contend in the Stewards’ Cup following his devastating win in the 2022 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup, which was contested over 2,000m.

“Romantic Warrior is also a good horse, I think he’s a champion,” Lui says.

“It’s a good race, I think California Spangle will do the same as before and Romantic Warrior comes back from 2,000m to 1,600m – it’s a small field, I think my horse will do the same as before. It’s not necessary for us to change anything.”

Trainer Tony Cruz feels that California Spangle has had a solid preparation ahead of his Stewards’ Cup tilt as he looks to level the score at two-two with Golden Sixty after three previous meetings.

He says that both he and jockey Zac Purton are very happy with the trial. “California Spangle was very good in the gates, he jumped out fast and he is much more patient now – he waits a bit longer for the jockey to ask him for an effort.

“It’s a long wait between races, seven weeks apart, so he’s had two trials leading up to this race and I’m very happy with him. We’re in with a good chance.”

Purton has six wins aboard California Spangle and is bidding for consecutive triumphs in the Stewards’ Cup after partnering Waikuku to victory in last year’s edition.

“It was the same as every trial – he jumps, he rolls along and he does what he needs to do. He’s going well,” Purton says.

The Australian – who leads the title race this season with 83 wins – would have much preferred a capacity field come Sunday.

“I think it plays into the strengths of the other horses really. They can be closer, it gives them less opposition to get around and allows them to be within striking distance. I’d prefer 14 runners and them to be stuck in traffic midfield and back, but it is what it is and it’s going to be a good race.”

Romantic moment on the cards - Shum thrilled to be part of 'most exciting' race for 30 years

Accustomed to elite success at home and abroad, Danny Shum believes the blockbuster G1 Stewards’ Cup clash between Hong Kong’s three top-rated horses – Golden Sixty, Romantic Warrior and California Spangle – at Sha Tin on Sunday is the “most exciting race” in 30 years.

Shum will saddle Romantic Warrior as last month’s dominant G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup winner bids for a 10th victory from 11 starts and figures in a first-time meeting with Golden Sixty and also a renewal of a burgeoning rivalry with California Spangle.

Pointing to the trio’s lofty ratings – Golden Sixty (130), Romantic Warrior (130) and California Spangle (129) – as well as the threesome’s imposing G1 haul – Golden Sixty (six), Romantic Warrior (two) and California Spangle (one) - Shum says Sunday’s contest is a rare meeting of three outstanding horses at their peaks.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been involved in a race like this and I’m really excited,” Shum says.

“It’s a world-class race. I don’t think it’s a race just for the Hong Kong followers – it’s a global race. In the last 30 years, this is the most exciting race – even though it’s a small field.”

At home, Romantic Warrior’s victories last year in the G1 FWD QEII Cup, LONGINES Hong Kong Cup and BMW Hong Kong Derby – all over 2,000 meters – are included in Shum’s excellent training portfolio, along with Scintillation’s G1 Centenary Sprint Cup successes in 2006 and 2007 and Seasons Bloom’s 2018 Stewards’ Cup triumph.

Buoyed by Romantic Warrior’s trackwork since the Hong Kong International Sale graduate’s stunning annihilation of world-class opposition, Shum is optimistic his stable star can extend an imposing strike rate.

“We have some confidence. It’s not a big field – just seven horses – so the horse can stay behind California Spangle and we have some confidence that we can beat him,” he says. “I’m really confident in the horse - he’s in really good form, so I have confidence in him.”

Romantic Warrior’s only defeat came in the 2022 Hong Kong Classic Cup over 1,800m when the Acclamation gelding finished fourth after covering ground behind California Spangle, the recipient of an inspired Zac Purton ride.

This Sunday marks Karis Teetan’s race-day reunion with Romantic Warrior after illness-related issues saw the Mauritian sidelined as New Zealander James McDonald partnered Romantic Warrior to victory in the G2 BOCHK Jockey Club Cup on November 20 and also to a race record four-and-a-half length romp in the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup on December 11.

“I promised Karis the ride. He rides the horse every morning. He does a great job with the horse and I really want him to win on the horse,” Shum says.

Romantic Warrior steps from gate four on Sunday, while Purton and California Spangle depart from barrier three, with Golden Sixty and Vincent Ho in gate two.

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