January 26, 2021

Hong Kong defending champions must overcome challengers from Japan, Ballydoyle

Beauty Generation and jockey Zac Purton win the Hong Kong Mile (G1) at Sha Tin on December 9, 2018 (c) Hong Kong Jockey Club

One year after the home team achieved a first-ever sweep of the Hong Kong International Races, all four defending champions are back in more challenging circumstances. The two going for three-peats – miler Beauty Generation and sprinter Mr Stunning – are not coming into Sunday’s festival in the same form. Nor is Hong Kong Cup (G1) upsetter Glorious Forever. In contrast, Hong Kong Vase (G1) hero Exultant enters at his peak, only he’s drawn widest of all in 14 versus a deep field at Sha Tin.

Hong Kong Vase

The about 1 1/2-mile Vase includes a couple of Japanese contenders who would have threatened in the about 1 1/4-mile Cup, but might have been swerving compatriot Almond Eye in the HKIR’s richest race. When she was ruled out of a Hong Kong trip by fever, the $3.6 million Cup was left with just eight in her absence, while the $2.6 million Vase boasted more headline acts.

Among them is Aidan O’Brien’s Anthony Van Dyck. The first Epsom Derby (G1) star to grace the meeting, the Galileo colt comes off an inconvenienced third to Bricks and Mortar in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Note that Anthony Van Dyck adds blinkers here. Stablemate Mount Everest, not beaten far in the Turf himself in sixth, is still arguably on the upswing after just resuming this fall from a year-long layoff. The Ballydoyle duo are drawn in posts 12 and 13, with only Exultant to their outside.

There is precedent for winning the Vase from post 14 (Japan’s Stay Gold in 2001), and a trio have scored from post 12, so the outside doesn’t have to be a disaster. And Exultant has the tactically adaptable style that helps in these situations.

Exultant and jockey Zac Purton hold off the game run of Lys Gracieux under jockey Joao Moreira to capture the Hong Kong Vase (G1) on December 9, 2018 (c) Hong Kong Jockey Club

Trained by Tony Cruz, who holds the record for most HKIR wins (10), Exultant outdueled future Cox Plate (G1) heroine Lys Gracieux here last December, with Waldgeist – the eventual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner over Enable – a troubled fifth. The Irish import has backed up that effort to capture four of his ensuing six, including the Hong Kong Gold Cup (G1) and Champions & Chater Cup (G1), to rank as Hong Kong’s champion in both the middle-distance and staying categories.

Aside from the post, Exultant faces two other potential questions. One is whether he ran almost too well in his prep, a dashing victory in the November 17 Jockey Club Cup (G2). Regular rider Zac Purton voiced that possibility straight afterward, and given the nature of the opposition, he has to deliver another peak performance. The other question is historical; namely, that Hong Kong has had a far tougher time beating the internationals in the Vase, and the prior two local winners didn’t repeat.

Once again Japan looms large, this time in the form of distaffers Deirdre and Lucky Lilac along with the progressive Glory Vase. Deirdre, runner-up in last year’s Cup and sixth in April’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) in her two prior appearances at Sha Tin, subsequently hit new heights in Europe. Upsetting the Nassau (G1) at Glorious Goodwood, Deirdre was a better-than-appears fourth in the Irish Champion (G1) and third in Ascot’s Champion S. (G1), both times behind Magical. Lucky Lilac, who placed to Almond Eye in two Japanese fillies’ classics in 2018, returned to her best with a terrific rally in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) at Kyoto last out. While Deirdre and Lucky Lilac aim to prove themselves at this trip, Glory Vase has an abundance of stamina as the near-misser in the Tenno Sho Spring (G1) over two metric miles. The lightly raced son of Deep Impact has upside and Joao Moreira.

British shippers Aspetar and Young Rascal are both on an upward curve. Aspetar, who broke through in the Grand Prix de Chantilly (G2), enters off a new high in the Preis von Europa (G1), and hitherto underachieving Young Rascal hinted that he could fulfill his potential by taking his first start as a gelding in the Floodlit at Kempton. French raider Called to the Bar has been competing well in the stayers’ ranks at up to two miles, but trainer Pia Brandt notes that he has a fine turn of foot. Indeed, at three he chased Oscar Performance home in the Belmont Derby (G1).

British-based globetrotter Prince of Arran, fresh off an excellent placing in the Melbourne Cup (G1) for the second straight year, needs to find a bit more judging by his form at this distance. In the Geelong Cup (G3) two back, he denied True Self, the hurdling mare-turned-Group performer on the Flat for Willie Mullins. She subsequently beat males in a Flemington Group 3 and has a tall order in this spot.

Rounding out the cast are locally based Southern Legend, Ho Ho Khan, and Eagle Way, the respective third, fifth, and sixth to Exultant in the prep.

Hong Kong Sprint

If the probability of Mr Stunning and D B Pin furnishing the exacta in this race for the third straight year weren’t slim enough in principle, other factors diminish it.

Mr Stunning maintained his consistency early in the year, missing narrowly to Beat the Clock in the Centenary Sprint Cup (G1) and placing third to Rattan in April’s Sprint Cup (G2), but sustained a stress fracture that sidelined him until November. The Frankie Lor charge wound up eighth behind rising star Aethero in his comeback, the Jockey Club Sprint (G2), and must take a gigantic step forward second up. D B Pin had an even longer injury layoff, 10 months, before his warm-up sixth in the same prep. Although he presented an eerily similar scenario when runner-up in this race last December, drawing post 13 on Sunday has left trainer John Size concerned about his trip.

Jockey Karis Teetan celebrates as Mr Stunning crosses under the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) wire first at Sha Tin on December 9, 2018 (c) Hong Kong Jockey Club

Size has a total of five in his arsenal, and his leading hopes have landed plum posts. Beat the Clock, third in last year’s running, turned the Centenary Sprint Cup/Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1) double to secure the divisional title. A closing third giving 15 pounds to Aethero in his seasonal reappearance, Beat the Clock will break from post 3. Rail-drawn Hot King Prawn was ninth as the favorite here in 2018, in what might have been a case of too much, too soon for a rapidly progressive type. Although out of action due to colic thereafter, the gray resumed with a second to Aethero in the Jockey Club Sprint. Stablemate Full of Beauty, a rallying fourth from post 14 that day, projects a better passage from post 5, while Ivictory has found life tougher since beating Mr Stunning in the 2018 Chairman’s Sprint Prize.

Aethero has stamped himself as the circuit’s latest sensation with a five-for-six career mark. The John Moore pupil broke the course record established by Sacred Kingdom (a legendary two-time Hong Kong Sprint winner) two back and followed up with a smashing stakes debut in the Jockey Club Sprint. The biggest negative, other than inexperience, is the fact that no sophomore has won this race. As a Southern Hemisphere three-year-old, Aethero receives a nine-pound weight break from the older males. Moore was pleased with post 10, since that gives him more tactical cards.

Trainer Danny Shum has two chances with opposite profiles in Seasons Bloom and Regency Legend. Seasons Bloom, a former Group 1-winning miler, thrived on the cutback and just captured the Premier Bowl (G2) over Full of Beauty, Wishful Thinker, and Rattan. Class climber Regency Legend had won six of seven until flopping in the Jockey Club Sprint. Also below form in that local prep was Little Giant, who had been fourth in last year’s Sprint (and now scratched).

In light of Hong Kong’s dominance in the Sprint, only two internationals have turned up for the about six-furlong dash. Japan’s Danon Smash hopes to emulate his sire, Lord Kanaloa, who famously floored the locals in the 2012-13 editions for the same trainer (Takayuki Yasuda). The multiple Grade 3 winner doesn’t sport the same resume, having finished fourth in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen (G1) and a close third in the Sprinters (G1) in his latest. Yet the four-year-old likely has more to give. Australian multiple Group 1 veteran In Her Time is at the opposite end of her career spectrum. Ninth in the Everest off the layoff, the seven-year-old mare was most recently third in the VRC Sprint Classic (G1).

Hong Kong Mile

Not that long ago, the world’s top-ranked miler Beauty Generation had looked well on his way to joining Good Ba Ba as the only three-peaters in HKIR history. The Mile (G1) was apparently at his mercy again when he returned triumphant in the October 1 Celebration Cup (G3) for his 10th straight win.

Subsequent events suggest it was a Pyrrhic victory. After blitzing to an about seven-furlong course record in 1:20.05 under top weight of 133 pounds, Beauty Generation regressed to third in the Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy (G3). What could be dismissed as a simple case of “second-up syndrome” took on a more concerning hue when he was overturned again in the Jockey Club Mile (G2), fading to third behind Waikuku and even his pace rival Ka Ying Star.

The two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year was off his game, and Moore knew that some tweaks were in order. Now reportedly satisfied with Beauty Generation’s racing-trim weight, the trainer is hopeful of a rebound – and happy that free-wheeling Ka Ying Star is on the rail. Beauty Generation should be able to carve out a tracking trip from post 5.

Waikuku, a fast-finishing second as the favorite in the Hong Kong Derby, has rounded into top form for Size back at a mile this term. Improving from a third in the Celebration Cup to miss by a nose in the Sha Tin Trophy, he swept to his first stakes win in the Jockey Club Mile. The respective fourth and fifth in the prep, Simply Brilliant and Citron Spirit, have a bit more to prove.

Indy Champ (outside, red cap), with jockey Yuichi Fukunaga aboard, wins the Yasuda Kinen (G1) at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan on June 2, 2019 (c) Horsephotos.com/Tomoya Moriuchi

In the past 14 runnings of the Mile, the only shippers to thwart the locals have been Japan’s Hat Trick (2005) and Maurice (2015), and four representatives make the trek. Indy Champ achieved the same historic mile double as Maurice, upstaging Almond Eye in the Yasuda Kinen (G1) and adding the Mile Championship (G1) last out with Persian Knight third. Persian Knight has gone winless since the 2017 Mile Championship, but he was runner-up in the 2018 edition and fifth to Beauty Generation here last season.

Their compatriots, three-year-old Admire Mars and the filly Normcore, are up against the historical trends against their demographics in this race. Admire Mars clinched champion two-year-old colt honors in the Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) and annexed the May 5 NHK Mile Cup (G1) in his division, but was a non-threatening ninth behind Normcore in the Fuji (G3). Normcore is three-for-three at this trip, notably uncorking a whirlwind charge in her record-setting Victoria Mile (G1), but no female has won this since the great Sunline (2000).

A European hasn’t won since Great Britain’s Docksider (1999), or as a practical matter, Godolphin’s Firebreak, who had raced in England but technically flew the UAE flag in 2004. That sums up the challenge set for Zaaki. Winner of the Diomed (G3) (in course-record time at Epsom) and Strensall (G3) this term, the Sir Michael Stoute trainee was outgamed by ill-fated Beat the Bank in Ascot’s Summer Mile (G2) and run off his feet by Benbatl in the Joel (G2).

Hong Kong Cup

The Cup has lost its most captivating contender in Almond Eye, but there are a few other story lines to ward off the sense of anticlimax. O’Brien’s globetrotting Magic Wand and the Aga Khan’s homebred Edisa try to strike a blow for the distaff set; Japan’s Win Bright seeks a rare Sha Tin double; and the local team aims to keep the trophy home.

Magic Wand, a top-level campaigner for two full seasons, earned an overdue Group 1 tally in the Mackinnon (G1) at Flemington last out. But the Galileo filly is far better than the typical European who needs to go to Australia for a Group 1 laurel. Second to Bricks and Mortar in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and Arlington Million (G1), Magic Wand was also next-best to future Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) queen Iridessa in the Pretty Polly (G1), and to Magical in the Irish Champion, edging Anthony Van Dyck with Deirdre in fourth. Her 1 1/4-mile form made her an obvious chance in the Cox Plate, but she tired to fourth after making her own pace. Wheeling back to attempt the Melbourne Cup and winding up 10th, Magic Wand was still fresh and well four days later to flaunt her class in the Mackinnon.

The only other European, Edisa, doesn’t have the same form in the book. Nor does she stack up against the only sophomore fillies to win the Cup, Alexander Goldrun (2004) and Snow Fairy (2010). Yet the daughter of Kitten’s Joy has a stealthy look, especially in these conditions, and for trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre. The heroine of the inaugural Jockey Club Oaks at Belmont, Edisa was then a commendable runner-up to older male Subway Dancer in the Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2) on heavy ground.

Win Bright has yet to crack a Grade 1 trifecta at home, most recently finishing eighth in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) behind Almond Eye. But the son of HKIR star Stay Gold found Hong Kong a more congenial spot to reach a new career high in the course-and-distance QEII Cup in April. Win Bright entered in sharper form this spring, though, off a repeat victory in the Nakayama Kinen (G2).

Glorious Forever triumphs in the Hong Kong Cup (G1) at Sha Tin on December 9, 2018, to cap off a stellar week for jockey Silvestre de Sousa, who also won the International Jockeys’ Championship (IJC) at Happy Valley Racecourse on December 5 (c) Hong Kong Jockey Club

Hong Kong has kept the Cup at home six times in the past decade, the last two editions courtesy of full brothers Time Warp (2017) and Glorious Forever (2018). The duo share a forward style as well that has more often than not worked against them. Glorious Forever was able to steal it last year, but another fratricidal war could ensue as they’re drawn next door to each other in posts 5 and 6.

Caspar Fownes’ highly regarded Rise High, a terrific second to Exultant in the Champions & Chater, was a more subdued fourth in the Jockey Club Cup. That slight step back might actually be a good thing, since he’d won his prior two including knocking off Beauty Generation, and he could be poised for another move forward. Reigning Hong Kong Derby winner Furore is another going in the right direction after a closing second to Exultant in the prep. One of a trio for Lor, he joins fellow Four-Year-Old Series competitor Dark Dream, the 2018 Queensland Derby (G1) hero who adds blinkers, and Glorious Forever.