May 26, 2024

Werther’s the one to beat in Hong Kong Cup

Werther, who missed the 2016 HKIR due to injury, is favored in the 2017 Hong Kong Cup (Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Werther will run the gauntlet of challengers from Europe and Japan in Sunday’s $3.2 million Hong Kong Cup (G1), but the former Hong Kong Horse of the Year remains the one to beat in the climactic finale to the Hong Kong International Races.

“He’s the best of my runners in the big ones by a furlong,” John Moore told the South China Morning Post – this declaration from a trainer who’s represented by no fewer than three in the Hong Kong Mile (G1) and also has chances in the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) and Hong Kong Vase (G1).

Four-for-five over this track and about 1 1/4-mile trip, Werther starred in the 2016 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) and Hong Kong Derby during his Horse of the Year campaign. The New Zealand-bred son of the Montjeu stallion Tavistock would have been a prime threat in last year’s HKIR, only to sustain a right hind suspensory injury that forced him to the sidelines.

Werther didn’t take long to return to top form, winning the February 26 Hong Kong Gold Cup (G1) in the second start of his comeback. Later in his QEII Cup title defense, he was downright rank through a pedestrian pace, and went down by all of half-length in third to Japan’s Neorealism. His failure to settle was reason enough for his only course-and-distance loss, but he was also found to have a “substantial amount of blood” in his trachea, and another jockey actually heard him coughing.

Moore took the blinkers off for the May 28 Champions & Chater Cup (G1) at about 1 1/2 miles, and Werther was good as new when storming to a three-length decision. His fall schedule designed to bring him to his peak on Sunday, Werther captured the local prep, the November 19 Jockey Club Cup (G2), despite not being fully cranked. He promises to be spot-on for the Cup, where he’s well drawn in post 3 with Tommy Berry.

Time Warp, just collared late by Werther in the Jockey Club Cup, experienced a similar heartbreak when nabbed by Nassa two back in a course-record Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (G3). Although the Tony Cruz trainee has yet to break through at the Group level, the British import is a progressive type whose forward style puts him into contention. Dennis Yip’s Secret Weapon, fifth as the defending champion in the Jockey Club Cup, may qualify as the forgotten horse of the race. Best-of-the-rest behind the imperious Maurice in last December’s Hong Kong Cup and a close third to Werther in the Gold Cup, Secret Weapon’s eligible to make noise again.

The remaining nine runners are all international shippers. Japan dispatches a trio in hopes of landing the Cup for the third straight year, following the exploits of A Shin Hikari (2015) and Maurice.

The aforementioned Neorealism capitalized on a heady ride by Joao Moreira to plunder the QEII Cup here in April, and the presence of the “Magic Man” in the saddle is an obvious plus. On the other hand, only two horses in the last dozen years have turned the QEII Cup/Hong Kong Cup double, and both were locals – Designs on Rome (2014) and Vengeance of Rain (2005). Moreover, Neorealism has raced just once in the interim, winding up 13th in the October 29 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) over heavy ground at Tokyo. Of course, he’s entitled to do much better second up on a sound surface here for Noriyuki Hori.

Compatriot Staphanos, unable to add to his tally since a Group 3 victory in 2014, has kept settling for minor awards. The Hideaki Fujiwara veteran hopes that it’s third time lucky for him in the Cup, having finished 10th to A Shin Hikari two years ago and third last year. He was also runner-up in the 2015 QEII Cup in his first visit to Sha Tin, and his notable placings at home include the 2015-16 editions of the Tenno Sho Autumn as well as the April 2 Osaka Hai (G1) to Kitasan Black. Like Neorealism, Staphanos comes off a subpar 10th in the Tenno Sho Autumn. But he gets more favorable conditions along with an eye-catching rider change to Hugh Bowman.

The mare Smart Layer, fifth in the Vase last year, turns back in trip this time. The daughter of Deep Impact defeated current Vase contender Tosen Basil, and next-out Japan Cup (G1) winner Cheval Grand, in the October 9 Kyoto Daishoten at about 1 1/2 miles. Her best efforts at this about 1 1/4-mile distance were a pair of seconds in the 2013 Shuka Sho (G1) and more recently in the June 3 Naruo Kinen (G3). The gray can be forgiven her latest sixth in Kyoto’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1), the third straight year she’s been unplaced in a race that apparently doesn’t play to her strengths. Yutaka Take regains the mount aboard the seven-year-old.

The last female to take the Hong Kong Cup, Snow Fairy (2010), was also the last British runner to hoist the trophy. To update that stat for the British, Sir Michael Stoute’s Poet’s Word must overcome the far outside post 12. Since his near-miss to pace-controlling Deauville in the May 11 Huxley (G3) at Chester, Poet’s Word has developed into a proper Group 1 performer. The Saeed Suhail colorbearer promptly opened his Group account next time in the Glorious (G3) at Goodwood, then placed second to Decorated Knight in the Irish Champion (G1), and held the same spot behind Cracksman in the Champion (G1) at Ascot. Poet’s Word staved off comebacking Highland Reel, albeit on unsuitably soft ground, in the Champions Day feature. Such a formline must be respected on his first globetrotting adventure, which could be the prelude to a lucrative 2018.

Fellow British shippers Robin of Navan and Blond Me have Group 1 form too, but must bridge the ratings gap with the principals. Robin of Navan’s signature win came in the 2015 Criterium de Saint-Cloud (G1), and his nearest brush with another top-level score was a neck second to Mekhtaal in the May 28 Prix d’Ispahan (G1). He snapped a prolonged losing skid next time in the La Coupe (G3), edging Garlingari, but went on to drop his next four. Blond Me, in contrast, comes off her new career high in the E.P. Taylor (G1) at Woodbine. Her other 2017 highlights – a first-up score in the Middleton (G2) and a second to Winter in the Nassau (G1) – likewise occurred on rain-softened ground, and she’ll have to raise her game this surface.

The Aidan O’Brien-trained Deauville ranks as the joint highest-rated horse in the Cup – level with Werther, Neorealism, and Poet’s Word – yet his lone top-level laurel came in last year’s Belmont Derby Invitational (G1). The Galileo colt has subsequently placed in two runnings of the Arlington Million (G1), as well as this season’s Queen Anne (G1) at Royal Ascot, Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1), Gordon (G3) (to Ulysses) and the Meld (G3), where he was upset on a rain-affected track at Leopardstown. If you toss his obvious flop in the Woodbine Mile (G1), Deauville belongs in the mix. According to the Hong Kong Jockey Club entries page, he adds blinkers, and Ryan Moore chooses him over stablemate War Decree, who hopes to regroup from a remote ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

While the Classic was an ambitious spot for a horse of War Decree’s inexperience, he still has upside. Two back, he flaunted his class versus lesser in the Diamond (G3) over Dundalk’s Polytrack. Admittedly his turf form as a Group 2-winning juvenile is more encouraging than his two unplaced runs on the grass this term, but he was hardly disgraced when fifth in the Prix du Jockey Club (G1) back in June.

The O’Brien duo are trying to become just the second Irish-trained winner, after the filly Alexander Goldrun (2004), but France has furnished three Cup heroes, most recently Vision d’Etat (2009), and the tricolor is brandished here by Garlingari.

The sentimental choice because he’s trained by Corinne Barande-Barbe, best known for her work with the grand campaigner Cirrus des Aigles, Garlingari hasn’t matched his feats. But the six-year-old homebred is a multiple Group 2 winner who just posted back-to-back scores in the September 16 La Coupe de Maisons-Laffitte (G3) (upstaging One Foot in Heaven) and the September 30 Prix Dollar (G2) (turning the tables on Cup foe Robin of Navan back in fifth). Garlingari has improved with maturity, and he’s found his home at this distance. Thus he may be a better proposition now than he was a year ago, when seventh in the Vase.

Tune in to late Saturday night for the Sha Tin card. First post is 11:25 p.m. (EST), with the Hong Kong Cup due at 3:30 a.m.