The final major international fixture of 2017 occurs this week with the Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) at Sha Tin on Sunday. The week-long festivities also include the International Jockey Championship (IJC) Wednesday evening at Happy Valley.
I had the opportunity and privilege to attend the event last year, and readers can revisit my coverage here. The hospitality put on by the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the week’s worth of experiences were second to none, and I’d encourage all lovers of racing to put the event on their bucket list and attempt to make it over there at least once.
I’ll be following the action from afar this week, but here are four things I’ll be on the lookout for on Sunday.
1. Will Highland Reel bounce back?
Coolmore’s sensational globetrotter Highland Reel is back in Hong Kong for a third time, and is out to make amends for his surprise loss in last year’s Hong Kong Vase (G1) to Japan’s Satono Crown. Winner of the 1 1/2-mile Vase in 2015, Highland Reel entered this race in 2016 following a dynamite performance in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Favored to win the same race last month at Del Mar, he was out-finished by fellow Vase candidate Talismanic and the U.S.-based Beach Patrol.
Successful in the Coronation Cup (G1) and Prince of Wales’s (G1) earlier this year, Highland Reel found the ground too testing in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) and was undoubtedly a tad short in his Champion (G1) comeback in October, but was his relatively disappointing try in his Turf title defense perhaps a sign he’s past his peak? He figures to get his preferred ground on Sunday, but might be worth trying to beat at short odds.
2. U.S. back in the HKIR
After Pure Sensation was withdrawn from the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) due to foot issues late in the week a year ago, it will be interesting to see how the fixture’s lone U.S. representative, Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) winner Stormy Liberal, fares against some of the world’s fleetest dashers. Distance will not prove an issue for the Peter Miller trainee, but the unfamiliarity with clockwise racing and the recent domination of locals in this race will make his task difficult.
Lucky Bubbles, a hot favorite when missing to two-time winner Aerovelocity 12 months ago, will get the benefit of the doubt for a horrific run on the rail in the Jockey Club Sprint (G2) last time, but this race is loaded with other talented sorts like Mr Stunning, 2015 winner Peniaphobia, and Amazing Kids.
3. Can ‘Bomber’ earn his first signature win?
He’d still be eligible for a first-level allowance in America, but Coolmore’s Lancaster Bomber has proven much better than that with top-level placings in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), Woodbine Mile (G1), St James’s Palace (G1), and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) in the past 13 months.
Hindered in the past by soft ground, he’s not expected to see such conditions on Sunday, but can he can break the stranglehold Hong Kong has generally had on this race for years? The brilliant Ryan Moore, a four-time winner at the HKIR, will attempt to guide him through a field that includes the top four from last year — Beauty Only, Helene Paragon, Joyful Trinity, and Contentment.
4. An original for the Cup
Locally-based Werther has been nearly a sure thing over 2000 meters at Sha Tin, winning four of five and narrowly missing to Neorealism in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) in April. Having missed last year’s HKIR due to injury, the former Hong Kong Horse of the Year will be a fan favorite to pull off his biggest win, and he should strip fitter following a hard-earned score in the Jockey Club Cup (G2) last time.
Longshots Secret Weapon and Staphanos, second and third, respectively to the dazzling Japanese invader Maurice in the 2016 Cup, are back for another try, but the progressive Poet’s Word may prove to be the most serious challenge following second-place efforts in the Irish Champion (G1) at Leopardstown and the Champion at Ascot.