By David Morgan – HKJC
Neil Callan must have done something right at the weekend. The Irishman had a rare sit on a John Size-trained galloper on Saturday afternoon and finds himself in the hot seat in the finale at Happy Valley on Wednesday (6 April) night atop the handler’s exciting young sprinter Country Star.
“Maybe he’s feeling sorry for me!” Callan said with a smile as he stopped to speak between barrier trials at Sha Tin this morning (Tuesday, 5 March).
Country Star (133lb) has five wins already in this his debut campaign. That tally equates to 50% of Callan’s entire haul for the season. His 10 wins have been tough to accrue and represent a noticeable drop away from the kind of pace he maintained when securing 47 wins and third place in the premiership just two seasons ago.
“It’s a little bit frustrating because I always want more and I want to be further up the table,” the rider said. “It comes down to getting the right runs, the right draws, and getting on the right horses at the right time. Sometimes that’s happened for me this season and sometimes it hasn’t.”
Following on from riding Enrichment to third-place for Size at the weekend, Country Star could well be one of those timely pick-ups. Callan steps in for the mount on the talented three-year-old thanks to a Joao Moreira suspension.
“Country Star’s a nice horse, John’s placed him well and trained him well and every time he’s put him in a race he’s won or been second,” he noted.
“He has to go and carry top-weight in a Class 2 but last time he carried a bit of weight and won well. He’s got a nice draw (6), we know he likes the track and John’s horses are in great form so hopefully we can get a winner for him.”
Whether he can secure a victory on the Starcraft gelding to give his season a boost remains to be seen but win or lose Callan will stick to the hard-grafting template that has earned him the “Iron Man” moniker among Hong Kong’s racing fans.
“I’ve been working as hard as ever but it’s just the rub of the green,” he observed. “I’m not doing anything differently, I’m still trying hard to win and I’m still doing things right.
“It’s so competitive here that when you see a length covering a field of 14 horses it shows how difficult it is. Once you get through the first third of the season here, the jockeys who are winning the most in the early part are the ones that pick up the better rides as they go along. It doesn’t change my approach because I feel if you change and try to force things you ride badly and it gets noticed here.”
Callan has a full book of eight rides at the mid-week fixture, including Harrier Jet in race seven, the consistent Top Laurels in race five, and, in race two, the 25-race maiden Dollar Reward who has been knocking on the door this term.
“If they can go fast and Harrier Jet can get down the inside and get all the breaks he’s more than capable,” he said. “Top Laurels is very fit and with a little bit of luck, hopefully he can get his head in front. Dollar Reward’s taken a long time to acclimatise and he’s gone close on his last few runs so that means he’s in good form.”
And, as he pointed out, he has 19 seconds and 25 third-placed finishes alongside his wins.
“It’s all a balancing act and you just need that bit of luck to fall your way with good rides, good draws, the right tempo and then, bang, you’ve got three winners in a night and the dynamic shifts.”
Facing the Music
Callan takes the view that Country Star might well have the necessary quality to overcome his 133lb burden in the Class 2 Arsenal Handicap (1200m) against a strong field that includes another sprinter of some potential, Music Addition (124lb).
The Me Tsui-trained galloper has only raced four times but has been impressive in winning his last two. Callan, though, feels his mount might still have an edge.
“Music Addition’s won well twice but he’s got to step up again whereas my fella’s already been there,” he said. “I do like Country Star, he’s got a bit of class and he’s only a three-year-old so he might just be able to take the next step up. He’s progressed quite quickly in a short space of time so let’s hope he can step up again and carries on along that curve.”
The 12-strong field also features the Chris So-trained Hinchinlove (120lb), seeking a first win at start seven. The four-year-old ran third to leading BMW Hong Kong Derby hope Waikuku two starts back and was fourth off a tough trip last time; he returns to the Valley for the first time since a first-up third over 1000m.
“It was an odd race,” jockey Zac Purton said of his last start. “It looked like there was no speed, on paper, and then every horse wanted to take a sit. It just didn’t work out well for us.
“He still loomed up as if he had his chance and he didn’t quite go on with it – he’s a very quirky horse. He does a little bit wrong, even in the mornings. He’s the type of horse that needs everything to fall correctly for him to be able to get the job done. I think he’s better than what we’ve seen so far but he’s his own worst enemy.”
The Tony Cruz-trained California Fortune (130lb) was third to the highly-regarded Regency Legend two runs back and was just pipped by the talented Wishful Thinker at the course and distance three weeks ago. Also in the field is the John Moore-trained Storm Signal (119lb), unlucky last time out.
Wednesday’s action starts at 7.15pm with the Class 5 Lockhart Handicap (1800m).