Charlie Appleby, currently the third-ranked trainer in the world, was full of optimism yesterday about the chances of his star sprinter, Blue Point - the horse who had to be withdrawn at the start when odds-on favourite for one of the big races on Dubai World Cup Night, being able to make amends in Sunday's US$2 million G1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at Sha Tin on Sunday.
The Godolphin 4-year-old is currently the bookmakers' third choice behind local stars Mr Stunning and Beat The Clock for the race, which is one of three highlights on Hong Kong's Champions Day, which carries prize money worth US$9 million. The other two are the US$3 million Audemars Piguet (2000m - ten furlongs) and the US$2.3 million Champions Mile.
Hong Kong Derby winner Ping Hai Star is favoured for the Audemars Piguet over Time Warp and Pakistan Star, and the Champions Mile market is dominated by local runners Seasons Bloom and Beauty Generation.
Appleby was on hand at the track for the first time this morning and watched on as Blue Point completed a lap of the all-weather track under regular rider Giuseppe Bussu. Walking back alongside his horse with assistant Sophie Chretien, an animated Appleby could not hide his satisfaction at the 4-year-old's condition.
"I'm delighted with him," he said. "He shipped in very well, Sophie knows him inside out and the team was pleased with the way he settled into his surroundings. He was on the turf yesterday. Giuseppe said he moved around beautifully. He was pleased to see him switching his leads well. He's doing all the right stuff, showing us all the right signs."
Blue Point has only had one start in 2018, finding the line powerfully to just fall short in the G2 Meydan Sprint (1000m - five furlongs) in February. The bay was at the head of the market for the G1 Al Quoz Sprint (1200m) last month, but was withdrawn at the gates when blood was detected in his nostrils.
"Frankly, we're here now so it wasn't too serious," Appleby explained. "If it had been serious, we wouldn't be standing where we are now. It was an unfortunate situation. He must have given himself a bang somewhere along the line there, but post-race we haven't had a setback at all. It was just fortunate on the night that we had a reserve there in Jungle Cat to pick up the pieces. It's worked out well too because we come here with a fresh horse."
Appleby added: "If Blue Point had run on World Cup night, this would have been a serious question - coming out here and then heading on to Royal Ascot. It would have been a tough test. But the way it has panned out, timing-wise, it suits us.
"It was a race we purposely made the entry for, not quite knowing what would happen, and, with him missing World Cup night, it was a logical step coming here and then going on to Royal Ascot."
Appleby said it was something of a missed opportunity for Blue Point, given that all indications were that he was a stronger Al Quoz chance than his stablemate. Jungle Cat eventually won the race by a half-length.
"All the home evidence and obviously on his European form, Blue Point's in front; strictly on ratings, too," the trainer said. "He was the odds-on favourite for the Al Quoz Sprint, so obviously I'm going to have to say that Blue Point's in front. At the end of the day, though, Jungle Cat's done it at Group 1 level, so now we need this fellow to do the same too. This is his chance."
Jockey William Buick, who has ridden Blue Point in seven of his past eight starts, will fly in tomorrow. It will be the Norway-born rider's first mount at Sha Tin in almost five years; his last visit, in December, 2013, saw him almost score a maiden Hong Kong win, finishing second aboard The Fugue in the G1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) and fourth on Gordon Lord Byron in the G1 Hong Kong Mile.
"Myself and William have spoken about the race and been through the opposition," Appleby said. "It's like any Group 1 race, you respect all of them, it's not just one horse in particular. They are all there competing at the highest level. It's not a big field this year, we've drawn six of nine; that suits us, that gives William options on the day."
All of Blue Point's 11 starts have been over straight courses, including three G1 placings and a track record over 1200m at Ascot, but Appleby is not concerned about tackling Sha Tin's right-handed bend for the first time.
"I don't see it as a concern at all; if anything, I think it's going to be a positive for him," the trainer said. "He's been in Dubai over the winter and has been training on a turn every day, and about six weeks ago we purposely switched him to training right-handed. This morning, he switched his leads very naturally."
Blue Point is Appleby's second Hong Kong starter; the 42-year-old also saddled up Safety Check at this meeting two years ago, with the G2 winner finishing fifth to Maurice in the 2016 Champions Mile. However, Appleby indicated that he is likely to have another Sha Tin runner next month with Frontiersman an intended runner in the G1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup (2400m) on 27 May.
"Hopefully, we'll be here next month, that's the plan at this stage," he said of Frontiersman, a son of 2005 Hong Kong Vase winner Ouija Board. "He's come out of World Cup night in good order, he ran well up to two miles in the [Dubai] Gold Cup. We've been kind enough to get the invitation here. He'll appreciate the conditions here and if he brings his A-game, I think he'll be a live contender."
Frontiersman would be the first international horse to contest Hong Kong's end-of-season Group 1, but for now, the focus is on Blue Point's bid to join Australian grey Chautauqua as a foreign-trained winner of the Chairman's Sprint Prize.
"This is what Godolphin is all about, we want to be an international stable," Appleby said. "Fortunately, we have horses like Blue Point and Hawkbill and Jungle Cat currently that are allowing us to be able to travel again to these big meetings. Hopefully, Blue Point can put up a good race on Sunday."