Sunday’s $2.1 million Hong Kong Vase (G1) at Sha Tin was the only one of the four Hong Kong International races that didn’t look likely to fall to Japan. Aidan O’Brien’s defending champion, Highland Reel (Ire), appeared virtually unassailable on paper, and for the first 11 1/2 furlongs of the race itself. But in deep stretch, 19-1 shot Satono Crown (Jpn) exploded to collar the 1-2 favorite in the shadow of the post and put Japan on the scoreboard unexpectedly early.
Perhaps Satono Crown was inspired by his midweek work in company with superstar stablemate Maurice (Jpn), who would go on to glory in the Hong Kong Cup (G1). Together they made trainer Noriyuki Hori the first international horseman to turn a Group 1 double on HKIR day.
Perhaps it was the return to about 1 1/2 miles, just his second career try at the trip. Satono Crown hadn’t raced this far since his third-place effort to champion Duramente (Jpn) in last year’s Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) (G1). Perhaps it was in the genes, since he’s by Marju (Ire), sire of such Hong Kong legends as Indigenous (Ire) and Viva Pataca (GB).
Whatever combination of factors, Satono Crown produced a startling form turnaround to earn his first Group 1 victory. The multiple Grade 2 winner had disappointed in his prior visit to Sha Tin for the April 24 QE II Cup (G1), and most recently trudged home 14th behind Maurice in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1).
Satono Crown got an assist from ace Hong Kong rider Joao Moreira, who’s not nicknamed “Magic Man” for nothing. And rival Big Orange (GB) played an indirect – and unwitting – role by rushing up to pester front-running Highland Reel down the backstretch, causing jockey Ryan Moore to use the favorite a bit more than planned in the middle stages. Otherwise, Highland Reel would have gotten away with the same kind of rhythmic wind-up as in his Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) procession.
Even so, Highland Reel was delivering a powerhouse performance on the engine. The world traveler easily rebuffed Big Orange and ran his nearest pursuers off their feet. Dishing out a fifth quarter in :23.42, Highland Reel slipped the field turning for home and opened up.
Satono Crown had been well back, and Moreira had to employ his best arts to weave a passage. Once his pilot did his part to get him in the clear, Satono Crown did the rest, and ran Highland Reel down in a blistering final time of 2:26.22 – the fastest Vase since it became an international Group 1 in 2000.
“I was always confident I would get there,” said Moreira, who had won every other HKIR event but the Vase.
By adding this trophy to his past success in the 2014 Cup and Mile (G1) and 2015 Sprint (G1), Moreira joins Gerald Mosse as the only two jockeys to win all four HKIR evehts.
“It’s a dream come true to achieve the full house,” Moreira said. “I thought this horse was a very good chance before the race and the feeling that he gave me on the track the other day was great, so I knew I had a lot of horse underneath.”
Although denied by a half-length, Highland Reel could hardly have run better. Aside from his sparkling time, he drew 6 3/4 lengths clear of third-placer One Foot in Heaven (Ire). Japan’s Nuovo Record (Jpn) rallied from last for fourth. Indeed, Highland Reel was the only forward runner still standing in the end. Everyone else in proximity to him early was up the track in the end, underscoring what a searching gallop he’d set.
“He’s run very well – a cracking race given the pressure,” Moore observed. “But it’s disappointing to get beaten. We pulled a long way clear. The winner is a good horse.”
O’Brien likewise paid tribute to Highland Reel, who’s stood up to a grueling campaign that began all the way back in Dubai in March.
“He ran very well, he’s had a long season but he ran a great race. He ran his heart out. He’s had a phenomenal season.”
Having achieved a major breakthrough on the international stage, and handed Japan its first Vase since Stay Gold (2001), Satono Crown may be in line for bigger targets in 2017. Hajime Satomi’s colorbearer has few miles on the clock with an 11-5-0-1 lifetime mark.