The delighted roar of a victorious Neil Callan reverberated around Sha Tin for one of the final times on Sunday, with the Irishman celebrating a victory many thought would never come.
Callan’s Hong Kong career looked over when he was suspended until the end of the season for his conduct in a stewards’ inquiry in February, but he was handed a reprieve when his ban was slashed from 28 meetings to 15 on appeal, allowing him to return to the saddle on May 30.
His victory aboard the Tony Cruz-trained California Spangle in the Tung Wan Plate (1,000m) for Griffins was Callan’s first since his Group Two success aboard Mighty Giant on April 5 and the jockey is determined to finish his Hong Kong career full of running.
“It’s always nice [after] such a long time off – whether it’s enforced or not – to come back and show everybody that I’m still hungry and fighting for wins and hopefully I can get a lot more,” said Callan, who confirmed on Thursday that he will return to the United Kingdom at the end of the season.
“Once we got onto the rail, I let him relax underneath me and in the middle sections, he was just cruising and I knew he was going to kick for me.
“I knew he was going to finish off the last 200m very strong. There’s a little bit of greenness and immaturity still but he’s definitely got ability.”
Trainer Tony Cruz and jockey Neil Callan are all smiles after California Spangle’s victory.
California Spangle was sent off a $2.05 favourite on debut and Callan rode him like the best horse in the race, urging him forward along the rail from the outside alley in the eight-horse field and assuming the lead after 200m.
The three-year-old colt travelled smoothly in the run and hit the line a length in front of Cordyceps Six to salute in class-record time, clocking 55.33 seconds to slash .67 of a second off Lifeline Pals’ long-standing mark from 2007.
“The barrier draw was fantastic for him and all he needed to do was jump fast. I expected him to win this race,” Cruz said. “He did everything well during the race and after the race the jockey’s report was very good – no bad habits. He rode him with a lot of confidence.”
It was the 36th time Cruz and Callan have tasted victory together – including three Group Ones with Blazing Speed and a Classic Mile with Beauty Only – and the legendary trainer said he’ll miss being able to turn to the Irishman.
“I’m happy for Neil, I’ll be sad to see him go – he’s ridden a lot of races for me,” Cruz said.
In a remarkable turn of events, owner Howard Liang Yum-shing had two winners within seconds of each other with California Sky winning at Hawkesbury in Australia in a race that jumped at the exact same time as the Sha Tin opener taken out by California Spangle.
Two other California horses lined up at Sha Tin on Sunday, with Californiadeepshot finishing fourth in the Class Two Cheung Sha Handicap (1,200m) on the all-weather track and California Ten running third in the Class Three Kiu Tsiu Handicap (1,600m).