December 15, 2018

Breeders’ Cup hero Stormy Liberal up against home team in Hong Kong Sprint

Stormy Liberal edges Richard's Boy in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1) (Matt Wooley/EquiSport Photos)

After springing a 30-1 surprise in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) on his home circuit of Southern California, Stormy Liberal aims to upstage big names further afield in Sunday’s $2.4 million Hong Kong Sprint (G1).

It’s been 20 years since an American-based horse has won a Hong Kong International Race — Val’s Prince (1997), in the Group 2 race later refashioned into the Hong Kong Cup. And Glen Kate (1993) took the event that subsequently morphed into the Hong Kong Mile. But the U.S. colorbearers have found it tougher to find success in the modern HKIR format.

The precedent for Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winners doesn’t give great cause for optimism. Mongolian Saturday and Green Mask, the first and third in the 2015 Turf Sprint at Keeneland, wound up fifth and eighth, respectively, at Sha Tin. It was a similar story in 2009, when Turf Sprint star California Flag was fifth in this spot, and Cannonball, third to him at Santa Anita, was only 10th in Hong Kong. Last year’s Turf Sprint third, Pure Sensation, intended to try his luck at Sha Tin but had to withdraw with foot trouble.

Trainer Peter Miller is hopeful that Stormy Liberal can adapt to the right-handed turn, one factor that affects the Americans’ chances around this course.

“Going right-handed is always a question,” Miller said in a Hong Kong Jockey Club release, “and there are a lot of things to overcome as an American horse in a very different racing environment, but we breezed him three times, at home, going what we would call the wrong way and he was fine; switching leads on queue. Today (at Sha Tin) was the fourth time and he was good again.”

Miller also mentioned the inevitable medication angle. Stormy Liberal routinely runs on Lasix at home, but will go without in accordance with Hong Kong rules.

“The going and the distance will suit him in Hong Kong and he’s the right horse to try with. He’s not a bleeder, he doesn’t need Lasix.”

Stormy Liberal was in career-best form through the early part of 2017, rattling off a four-race winning spree capped by the Daytona (G3) on Santa Anita’s downhill. Sidelined after disappointing in the Jaipur (G3), he wasn’t seen again until Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Stormy Liberal therefore remains fresh going into Hong Kong, where he has enticed Silvestre de Sousa aboard. Post 11 doesn’t help.

Lying in wait is a formidable home team, its skills honed on arguably the world’s deepest sprint circuit. Hong Kong horses have won 13 of 18 editions of the Sprint, and in the last 15 years, it’s taken invaders the caliber of Japan’s Lord Kanaloa (2012-13) and South Africa’s J J the Jet Plane (2010) to deny them.

Mr Stunning, currently Hong Kong’s highest rated horse overall, has emerged as the heir apparent to the local sprint establishment. Victorious over 2015 Hong Kong Sprint scorer Peniaphobia in the April 9 Sprint Cup (G2), his first Group race, the John Size pupil just missed to Lucky Bubbles in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1) on May 7. Mr Stunning has continued to develop this fall, scoring back-to-back in course-and-distance preps, the Premier Bowl (G2) over Lucky Bubbles and the Jockey Club Sprint (G2) over stablemates Amazing Kids and D B Pin. The Exceed and Excel gelding is a Group 1 winner in the making, and he’ll work out a good trip with Nash Rawiller.

Lucky Bubbles was woefully unlucky in the Jockey Club Sprint, enduring a nightmarish time on the rail before getting shuffled back to ninth. Suffice to say he never saw daylight that day, so trainer Francis Lui was not best pleased to draw the rail on Sunday. Yet new rider Hugh Bowman, of Winx fame and now the Longines World’s Best Jockey after lifting the Japan Cup (G1) aboard Cheval Grand, could navigate the right passage. Lucky Bubbles is proven on this stage, not only as the Chairman’s Sprint Prize winner (with Bowman) but also as the flying second in a photo in the 2016 Hong Kong Sprint. His head-to-head match-ups with Mr Stunning have been decided by who gets the best trip, a pattern that can continue here.

Nearly all of the local contenders warmed up in the Jockey Club Sprint. Peniaphobia, winless since the January 30 Centenary Sprint Cup (G2), was fourth after setting the pace, while Thewizardofoz rallied for a sneakily-good fifth in the Jockey Club Sprint. Note that Joao Moreira sticks with Thewizardofoz, who shouldn’t be overlooked among Size’s quartet led by Mr Stunning. The son of Redoute’s Choice and multiple New Zealand champion Princess Coup has shown glimpses of high quality, and he just needs a strong pace to set up his late kick. His Group win came at about seven furlongs in the June 25 Premier Cup (G3). Moore’s representative, Not Listenin’tome, was third to Peniaphobia in the 2015 Hong Kong Sprint but only seventh a year ago. The type to settle for a minor award, he earned his marquee win in last year’s Jockey Club Sprint but gave way to seventh last out in his title defense. Not Listenin’tome gets the tongue tie back on, and switches his bit, but keeps Tommy Berry aboard.

The one Hong Kong-based hopeful who skipped that prep is Blizzard. Sent to Japan for the Sprinters S. (G1), he finished a close fifth to repeat winner Red Falx at Nakayama, but may have derived a long-term benefit. Trainer Ricky Yiu, who won this race with Sacred Kingdom (2007/2009) and Fairy King Prawn (1999), believes that Blizzard appears to have turned the corner into a mellower fellow. If so, the Starcraft gelding may be a sleeper with all-time winningest HKIR rider Gerald Mosse.

Blizzard will renew rivalry with the Japanese shippers on his home turf, Sprinters placegetters Let’s Go Donki and Once in a Moon, both distaffers. Let’s Go Donki captured the 2015 Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) (G1), but failed to thrive over routes and ultimately reinvented herself as a sprinter. Second in both of Japan’s major turf dashes, the Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1) in March as well as the Sprinters, the King Kamehameha mare exits a third in the Mainichi Broadcast Swan (G2) over an extra furlong at Kyoto. Let’s Go Donki has yet to win at this 1200-meter (about six-furlong) trip, though. Once in a Moon, second to Let’s Go Donki in the Kyoto Himba (G3) back in February, garnered a listed stakes at Niigata in August prior to her wire attempt in the Sprinters, where she was nabbed late in the uphill stretch. The speedy four-year-old now picks up Zac Purton.

With the defection of Great Britain’s The Tin Man due to fever, the two French speedsters, Signs of Blessing and The Right Man, are left with the massive task of trying to end the shut-out of Europeans in the Sprint. Signs of Blessing was a heroic fifth last year from post 13, and draws far better in 5, but doesn’t enter in as sharp a form. And after arrival, his bloodwork was abnormal, with the Hong Kong Jockey Club identifying travel as the likely reason. He’s improving with treatment, so the signals are positive pending final clearance to run. The Right Man benefited from a rare yielding course in Dubai to upset the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) on World Cup night. Well beaten in his two ensuing starts in Europe, he recently rebounded in his Prix de Seine-et-Oise (G3) title defense, again on rain-softened ground. Post 13 does him no favors.

The Hong Kong Sprint is scheduled to go off at 1:40 a.m. (EST), and the action is available on