Francis Lui is in an unusual position. Not only does he occupy a high berth in the trainers’ standings approaching the season’s halfway mark but he also has two of Hong Kong’s most exciting four-year-old prospects in his care.
Golden Sixty and More Than This could well go to post as the top two in the market for Monday’s (27 January) Hong Kong Classic Mile, the first of three contests that make up the Four-Year-Old Classic Series.
Lui’s current situation is not entirely anomalous though: the handler, 61 and licensed since 1996, has tasted big-race four-year-old success before, when his Hello Pretty won the Hong Kong Derby Trial. That was in 2006 prior to the race title being modified to become the Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m) – he ended that campaign with 24 wins for 13th in premiership, almost bang on his career average.
Since then, Lui’s profile has changed, steadily and almost inconspicuously; first of major note came the exploits of Lucky Bubbles, who emerged from a solid fourth in the 2016 Classic Mile to highlight the trainer’s skills with a Group 1 victory in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1200m) of 2017.
Rolling with that success, Lui’s position has strengthened; he had a career peak 46 wins in 2017/18 to take fifth in the championship – one of four top-10 finishes in the past six seasons – and is now second in the title race with 31 wins, a tally that matches the number he posted for the whole of last season. But the arrival in his yard of More Than This – for Group 1-winning owner Huang Kai Wen – and the emergence of Golden Sixty, have him well-placed to take another step forward.
“It’s quite exciting,” Lui said with his usual warm smile and outwardly serene manner. “I’ve been training for a long time and haven’t had an outstanding horse except Lucky Bubbles.
“I think everybody would miss that excitement of what we had with Lucky Bubbles but I try to settle down and luckily the owners don’t give me much pressure, so I try to keep myself calm about it.”
Calmness appears to underpin Lui’s modus operandi which, whilst understated, clearly is not lacking in competitive steel nor a desire to prove he belongs among the best of his peers. Sha Tin’s hard schooling ground is after all not a place in which a shrinking violet can flourish.
The faith placed in him has so far been rewarded: More Than This was unbeaten in three for previous handler Richard Fahey in England and, after taking three runs to warm to Sha Tin, has put together four wins on the bounce; Lui purchased Golden Sixty for NZ$300,000 as a two-year-old at the New Zealand Bloodstock Ready To Run Sale in 2017 and, after three barrier trials, brought him to Sha Tin for owner Stanley Chan – his record stands at seven wins from eight races, latterly a Group 3 score over 1400m.
“It’s hard to pick one over the other at the moment,” Lui said. “Both have a good turn-of-foot, even More Than This – his last 150 metres, he really can make it.”
Golden Sixty is considered more a “miler type”, being a lighter, more compact individual than his stablemate and with an average racing weight of 1074lb compared to More Than This’ average body-weight of 1197lb.
“I think Golden Sixty can handle a mile no problem,” Lui said of the Medaglia D’Oro gelding.
“According to his sire, I’m hopeful he can handle further as well. Of course, we have to see how he runs in the Classic Mile first and then progress step-by-step through the Classic Cup.”
More Than This, on the other hand is seen by connections as a horse that will sparkle over distances beyond a mile – despite being by the speed influence, Dutch Art – and British ace Ryan Moore has been booked for Monday, with the third leg, the coveted BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m) being the prime aim.
“More Than This is a different type, he’s a big horse; I’m confident has the class to go with stamina,” the handler said.
Lui is pleased with the preparation of both horses but will add an extra touch to More Than This, who went through an easy barrier trial over 1700m at Happy Valley last Saturday (18 January) under Zac Purton.
“He had the barrier trial at Happy Valley and after that he’s okay,” Lui said. “He seems happy in his track work and he looks like he didn’t have the barrier trial so I’ll give him a grass gallop on Thursday (23 January), maybe jump out. He’s a different type to Golden Sixty, he’s quite a relaxed horse.”
Golden Sixty has ticked along since winning the Group 3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup Handicap (1400m) with an impressive finishing burst on 1 January.
That win came under his ever-present rider Vincent Ho, a key player in the Lui stable success of recent times; trainer and jockey combined for 20 wins last term and have 11 this campaign so far. Ho was in the plate for a 1200m hit-out earlier this week.
“Golden Sixty’s not a strong horse so I’ve just given him easy work. I gave him a grass gallop on Tuesday morning and I was happy with him,” Lui said.
“Golden Sixty is different – he’s an honest and sensible horse. Once you relax him, when he travels, he’s got a very good turn of foot. The field is small (nine runners) but doesn’t seem to have a pacemaker, so it’s difficult to say how he’ll handle that, it all depends how he travels.”
At present, Lui is travelling better than ever and bold performances from his two rising stars could see his own unassuming ascent cement his place in the top echelon of Hong Kong trainers.
The Hong Kong Classic Mile is one of three features on the 11-race Chinese New Year card, along with the Group 3 Centenary Vase Handicap (1800m) and the Class 1 Chinese New Year Cup Handicap (1400m).