[This report was published at HKJC.com: PHOTOS David Morgan]
Lucky Bubbles faces a tough assignment in Sunday’s (30 September) G1 Sprinters Stakes (1200m) at Nakayama, but the gelding’s connections are holding fast to sporting hope amidst a cluster of known and possible complications.
An unfavourable wide draw in gate 14, as well as the threat of soft going as Super Typhoon Trami’s rain bands head this way, have given trainer Francis Lui and jockey Brett Prebble plenty to consider. And then there is the hanging uncertainty of whether the admirable galloper still has within him the kind of spark that sealed a well-deserved G1 triumph in the 2017 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m) – his most recent form says perhaps, or perhaps not, depending on one’s view.
“I’m a little bit worried about his draw – I talked about it with Brett and he’s a bit concerned too. It’s going to be difficult,” Lui said at trackside this morning (Saturday, 29 September).
Only one horse since 1990 has won the Sprinters Stakes from gate 14, although it is worth noting that four have won from right next door in barrier 13 – one of those being Hong Kong’s greatest, Silent Witness.
“It’s a very competitive race; there are a couple of fast horses and some good ones that will come from behind. A lot will depend on how he breaks, where he can find a position and how he travels,” Lui continued.
“I’m hoping for a fast pace; he needs to find a sit in a good position, behind midfield – not caught wide. Hopefully he’ll relax and be able to follow the fast horses.”
Lui noted that soft ground is one uncertainty that might in fact work in Lucky Bubbles’ favour. Japanese sprinters are, after all, more accustomed to racing on firm surfaces.
“He doesn’t have a soft ground record in Hong Kong but in Australia his first win was on soft ground, so we are hopeful that if the ground is soft he will handle it,” he said, before adding a caution. “But, of course, soft ground is not the same everywhere, so we don’t know.”
Bubbles’ frame of mind
If barrier draws and possible ground issues were not enough, on top of it all is the matter of Lucky Bubbles’ mindset. Throughout the week, the seven-year-old has displayed a hitherto unseen character quirk, an aversion to exercising right-handed on what is a clockwise racing circuit. Connections have played safe, working the gelding counter-clockwise on the dirt track.
But all is not a malaise of negativity on that front, either. On Thursday, switched to the turf upon which he will compete tomorrow, the son of Sebring galloped under Prebble, and he did so in the correct direction, stretching up the famous Nakayama incline to the winning post. Some initial reproving persuasion was required, though.
“The first morning he stopped but we tried him going the other way and he was fine. I didn’t want to upset him, so we have kept him working that way,” Lui said.
“Brett did gallop the right way around on the turf; he gave a little bit of a problem at first, but Brett gave him encouragement and he went and did his work. Brett was happy with his movement and I’m happy with him also.”
Lui believes that being isolated in an unfamiliar setting is the reason for his stable star’s behaviour.
“He has no other horses around, so maybe he’s thinking too much. He’s never done this at home, so it seems to be that he’s just doing this because he’s alone in a new place.”
In seeking a solution, the handler will turn to a piece of headgear that Lucky Bubbles has worn only once before, when a sub-par eighth in January’s G1 Centenary Sprint Cup (1200m).
“He’ll wear blinkers,” Lui said. “He wore them before and he didn’t run well but he had a throat issue – the tongue-tie he wore for the first time in his last race sorted that. I think the blinkers can help him focus in the new environment.”
That latest run is the one that is giving connections hope that their star can return to something like his best and mix it with Japan’s top sprinters. It came back in June, a running-on third under a high-weight, just half a length behind the winner in the G3 Premier Cup Handicap (1400m). That followed three tame efforts in defeat.
But Lucky Bubbles has always performed well when fresh. His first-up runs in his previous three campaigns have resulted in two wins and a fine second to Mr Stunning in last season’s G2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m). And, in terms of the gelding’s health, Lui is pleased.
“Everything was fine travelling over; he’s fit, he’s healthy and his coat looks good,” he said.
Members of the Lucky Syndicate were on hand to watch their pride and joy work this morning. Lucky Bubbles cantered one circuit of the Nakayama dirt – the wrong way around – shortly before 6am, and then played the reluctant star, turning his head away as if objecting to the press pack’s pointed camera lenses.
The chestnut is slated to face 15 rivals in a hot renewal of the Sprinters Stakes. Red Falx will seek a hat-trick, having landed the last two editions; Fine Needle, fourth in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize at Sha Tin in April, will aim to add to his wins this term in the G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen (1200m) and the G2 Centaur Stakes (1200m); former Hong Kong Champion Jockey Joao Moreira is booked to ride Nac Venus, winner of the G3 Keeneland Cup (1200m) last time out.
Others of note include last year’s runner-up Let’s Go Donki, Centaur Stakes second Love Kampf and G3 Hakodate Sprint (1200m) winner Seiun Kosei.