Sunday’s Hong Kong Sprint (G1) is shaping up as a highly contentious affair on paper, with the past two winners – defending champion Peniaphobia (Ire) and 2014 star Aerovelocity (NZ) – taking on the emerging forces in their own local ranks, led by Lucky Bubbles (Aus); Japan’s Big Arthur (Jpn), billed as the next Lord Kanaloa; improving Australian Takedown (Aus), part of an irresistible “brother versus brother” storyline; and possibly America’s own Pure Sensation.
Unfortunately, Pure Sensation’s status is up in the air at the moment. The Christophe Clement trainee came out of Tuesday’s 600-meter (about three-furlong) breeze with a left hind hoof bruise, which has kept him in the barn for the past couple of days. According to the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Thursday bulletin, Pure Sensation “is responding well to treatment,” and we’ll know more about his prospects of making the race come Saturday (Friday night U.S. time).
A Friday update from the HKJC brought discouraging news, as Pure Sensation was now lame in his left front foot. He therefore missed another morning training session, prompting further doubts about whether he can be passed fit to race.
If Pure Sensation wins his race against time and lines up after all, he’ll face the biggest challenge of his career, not only from a class perspective, but also having to negotiate a right-hand turn at warp speed. Those two factors have contributed to years of American frustration in the Hong Kong International Races.
Among the leading U.S. turf sprinters for the past two seasons, Pure Sensation has no shortage of pace. Patricia Generazio’s homebred blasted to a new course record over Belmont’s Widener turf in the June 11 Jaipur (G3), clocking 1:06.76 for six furlongs, and went on to complete a hat trick in the Parx Dash (G3) and Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational. He was most recently an honorable third to Obviously in the November 5 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1), in his first try around Santa Anita’s unique downhill.
Drawn toward the outside here in post 11, Pure Sensation figures to be prominent early for new rider Christophe Soumillon. But will he corner better than he did in his work over the course? And will missing training time this week with his setback prove costly at the business end?
Will Hong Kong maintain its grip courtesy of a past champion?
The Hong Kong Sprint has verged on being private preserve for the locals, who’ve won 12 of 17 editions, including the last two. The home team marshals literally half of the field, making for strength in numbers, and quality too. Yet as deep as the bench is, Hong Kong doesn’t boast a superstar like the legendary Silent Witness (2003-04) or Sacred Kingdom (2007 and 2009), or even a clear-cut division leader. That puts a premium on who gets the best trip on the day.
Defending champion Peniaphobia isn’t coming up to the Sprint in as smart a form as a year ago, when he was making incremental improvement before peaking on HKIR day. But he’s also had a tougher task in this build-up, forced to carry more weight in the preps, and only being beaten a couple of lengths. Back at level weights, for his major target, Peniaphobia promises to fire his best shot. Even better, unlike in 2015 when he had to hustle from the far outside to set the pace, he drew the rail on Sunday, to the obvious delight of trainer Tony Cruz. Now he’ll get to flaunt his speed the shortest way around. But will he double up in such an evenly matched group?
Peniaphobia is a neck away from being a two-time winner already, having just missed to Aerovelocity when still a tender three-year-old here in 2014. Aerovelocity, then at the peak of his powers, racked up wins on foreign soil in Japan’s Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1) and Singapore’s KrisFlyer International Sprint (G1). Two years on, the now eight-year-old Aerovelocity is in the twilight of his career. He mounted a comeback from a heart irregularity to win the Centenary Sprint Cup (G1) over Peniaphobia in January, and in March suffered a bout of colic. Nursed back to health by trainer Paul O’Sullivan, Aerovelocity has finished a commendable third in both of his fall preps. The venerable gelding will run his race, but is it enough at this juncture? No one’s won this past the age of six.
Or will other Hong Kong contenders step up?
This could be the time for new blood to come to the fore, principally in the form of Lucky Bubbles, who’s the joint top-rated horse in the Sprint alongside Peniaphobia and Aerovelocity. The well-bred son of Sebring has yet to finish out of the top two in his career going this 1200-meter (about six-furlong) trip. Just nailed by Australian whiz Chautauqua – the world’s highest-rated sprinter – in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1) in May, Lucky Bubbles resumed with a victory under 131 pounds in the Premier Bowl (G2). He had too much ground to try to make up in his second prep, the Jockey Club Sprint (G2), and finished off well in second. That should set the little gelding up perfectly for Sunday, and he projects an ideal trip tucked just behind the speed from post 5.
Not Listenin’tome (Aus) capitalized on his perfect passage to win the Jockey Club Sprint. On Sunday, the John Moore trainee is eligible to work out the right trip again while drawn next door in post 4. Jockey Hugh Bowman, fresh off his success in Wednesday night’s International Jockey Challenge at Happy Valley, will have him well placed. Third to Peniaphobia in last year’s Sprint, and subsequently appearing a five-furlong type, the Dylan Thomas gelding is now more of a finished article. It wouldn’t take much improvement to see him hoist the trophy, but can he win two in a row in this fiercely competitive division?
Amazing Kids (NZ) isn’t to be overlooked for John Size, having traded decisions with Peniaphobia and Lucky Bubbles (including a smashing second despite completely fluffing the start in the Premier Bowl two back). In his fall comeback, Amazing Kids achieved a rare feat – running down a flying Amber Sky down the straightaway.
And Tony Millard’s duo of Strathmore (Aus) and Super Jockey (NZ) are capable of a surprise on their day. Strathmore was progressing at this time last year, only to be scratched from the Sprint due to a positive test for clenbuterol. The royally bred son of Fastnet Rock and Our Egyptian Raine eventually got his international Group 1 chance in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, finishing third to Chautauqua and Lucky Bubbles. Making a belated return in the Jockey Club Sprint, Strathmore was a useful sixth, and he’ll strip fitter second up. Eight-year-old Super Jockey is known for his dirt prowess, famously coming within a head of shocking Secret Circle in the 2015 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1), and hacking up in the lucrative Korea Sprint last time out in Seoul September 11. But in the past he’s placed to the likes of Aerovelocity and Not Listenin’tome on turf, and jockey Karis Teetan believes Super Jockey is better than he’s ever seen him.
Is Big Arthur the next Lord Kanaloa?
The biggest threat to the locals may come from Japan’s Big Arthur, and not just because Ryan Moore picks up the mount. The son of speed influence Sakura Bakushin O has turned in some eye-popping times while winning eight of 13 at home. Most sensational was a course-record 1:06.7 when gliding, from just off the pace, to his Grade 1 debut score in the March 27 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo.
Not seen again until the September 11 Centaur (G2) at Hanshin, Big Arthur called an audible from post 1 and rolled in wire-to-wire fashion in 1:07.6. His ascendance was (temporarily?) halted by a nightmarish trip last time in the Sprinters (G1), where he got shuffled back on the inside and never saw daylight in 12th. Needless to say, that’s a total toss.
The tantalizing thing about Big Arthur is that he brings a profile reminiscent of Lord Kanaloa, the Japanese star who dominated consecutive runnings of the Hong Kong Sprint in 2012-13. If he really is in that mold, post 13 will be no obstacle for a horse of his speed and tactical versatility. Can lightning strike twice for Japan in so short a time – a racing nation known more for its classic performers than speedsters?
Compatriot Red Falx (Jpn) produced what’s become his trademark blistering finish to take the Sprinters in the final strides, much like his late rally in the CBC Sho (G3) over the summer. Previously a dirt performer, Red Falx has found his niche as a turf sprinter. But is he quite as good as Big Arthur?
Can Australia revive the glory days from Falvelon?
No Australian-based horse has won this race since Falvelon (2000-01), but Takedown might be just the type to take the prize Down Under. In fact, you could argue – almost – he’s an honorary Hong Kong denizen.
From the yard of outstanding Hong Kong jockey-turned-trainer Gary Moore (brother of Not Listenin’tome’s trainer John), Takedown was a classy juvenile sought after as a potential private purchase. But as the South China Morning Post reported, the giant son of Stratum had a breathing problem that nixed the offers to relocate to Hong Kong. Since undergoing a procedure to correct that malady, and strengthening into his bulky frame, the Widden Stud-bred is living up to his fine pedigree.
Takedown, who just turned four, is compiling a career year already, highlighted by his Group 1 breakthrough in the November 26 Winterbottom (G1) at Perth’s Ascot. That was a nail-biter, as were his prior scores in the Premiere (G2) and The Shorts (G2). On a strict reading of form, he’ll need to do considerably better here. But Takedown tends to keep finding enough, and he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet.
In contrast, seven-year-old Rebel Dane has been around quite a while, placing to the likes of Pierro, Lankan Rupee, Buffering, Chautauqua, and Winx at various points over his 36-race career. His two Group 1 laurels came three years apart, in the 2013 Sir Rupert Clarke and most recently in the October 21 Manikato (G1), where the softish conditions played into his hands for a 60-1 upset. Only seventh to Takedown two starts back, Rebel Dane figures to find this spot difficult.
Will European futility ever end?
No European has ever won the Hong Kong Sprint, a shut-out all the likelier to persist after British raider Growl (GB) and France’s Signs of Blessing (Ire) drew posts 12 and 14, respectively. They can’t afford to concede the slightest edge to their rivals.
Indeed, Signs of Blessing’s trainer, Francois Rohaut, described his draw as a “catastrophe.” Theoretically, his European summer form through ill-fated Hong Kong champion Gold-Fun would put him in the mix, but only if you presume that Gold-Fun ran up to his best abroad, and that Signs of Blessing would transfer his straight-course performances to the boiling cauldron of high speed around Sha Tin. Gold-Fun and Signs of Blessing were separated by a short head when second and third, respectively, in Royal Ascot’s Diamond Jubilee (G1). Tragically, Gold-Fun suffered a fatal injury as Signs of Blessing wired the Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1) at 12-1, voiding any comparisons.
In his only subsequent outing, Signs of Blessing finished fourth in the British Champions Sprint (G1), in which Growl was second as a 50-1 longshot. A progressive handicapper trained by Richard Fahey, Growl came right back to take the Wentworth, only a listed race at Doncaster, in a photo. He must jump up markedly to put a fright in them here.