Wednesday, December 30, 2015


One of the two features on the New Year's Day card at Sha Tin is The Chinese Club Challenge Cup run over 1400m. This is a race which on the outset doesn't appear to contain much early speed with Multivictory from barrier three appearing the most likely leader. The inclusion of Secret Sham, who led over this trip in the G1 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup last year, and Super Lifeline, who has twice in a row rolled forward from wider draws, however, will ensure this isn't a slow tempo throughout. Instead, this is a race which figures to be slowly run early while everyone jockeys for position, but there is every possibility the tempo will speed up significantly midway through, thus favoring those who will be held up early.

Rewarding Hero won this event last year in what was his sixth run of the season. Off a rating of 110, he won a HKG3 despite having not placed in four prior attempts in group level company, This year, he enters with inconsistent form, but with preferred jockey Douglas Whyte back aboard and trending upwards off his most recent run, he figures to run better than appears likely on paper at first glance.

While Rewarding Hero is his chief threat, we'll instead side with a different Moore trainee in Exciting Dream. While mostly tried over 1200m, he successfully handled the step up to 1400m when third in the HKG3 Prince Jewellery & Watch Premier Cup to end last season in June. His rating from the end of last season has been well preserved (104 now versus 106 to start season). He's had three attempts at this level off similar marks in which he's finished fourth, third and fourth with the latter two runs both being over 1400m. Derek Leung rode him in all three of those runs and he jumps back aboard here. He'll carry the same 115lbs which he had in the HKG3 Celebration Cup earlier this season, but the kicker here is that day's winner Contentment now carries 132lbs -- a 17 lb swing from that meeting in Exciting Dream's favor.

Should they not go as fast as predicted in the mid-race, Contentment will likely sit an ideal trip with Moreira aboard. A revelation this season, he brings talent to the table, but his big weight makes winning a tall task.

The progressive Packing Pins should be suited back to 1400m, but he's drawn poorly particularly considering his connections' propensity to push him forward, but just off the speed, in recent races regardless of draw.

While unremarkable this season, Super Lifeline has been his usual consistent self. His one-paced grinding style is suited in these sorts of 1400m affairs, especially when he's sent forward early from the gates as can be expected given his draw. While he's not a chief threat to win the race, he's been sent off at large odds every time this season. He's a logical place chance here once again and he's also the recipient of a massive weight swing with Contentment.

Picks and Plays:
1. #8 Exciting Dream
2. #4 Rewarding Hero
3. #2 Contentment
4. #10 Super Lifeline

Quinella: 4-8, 8-10, 4-10
Trifecta: 4,8 / 4,8,10 / 2,4,8,10

For more Hong Kong spot plays, check out the Horse Player NOW BUZZ 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

2016 Three-Year-Olds To Watch

With 2015 coming to a close, it's on to the new year -- which means new crops of three-year-olds. We've been lucky in the past year to have seen an abundance of talent worldwide among the juveniles and we're focusing here not on which juveniles accomplished the most, but which of them appear to have the potential for greater success in 2016.

Note: For Southern Hemisphere-bred horses, we have only included those which turned three on August 1, 2015.

1. Minding (Galileo - Lillie Langtry, by Danehill Dancer)
IRE 2yo, Aidan O'Brien

Considering the connections, it is no surprise that Minding is as well-bred as they come. She is by top stallion Galileo out of Little Langtry, a top class racemare who was a G1 winner, taking both the Coronation Stakes and Matron Stakes. A winner of her second career outing at Leopardstown, she finished behind her more-fancied stablemate Ballydoyle in the G2 Debutante Stakes, but always looking the more unexposed and progressive type. Not only did she reverse that form with Ballydoyle next time out in the G1 Moyglare Stud Stakes, but she emphatically won the G1 Dubai Fillies' Mile, relishing every bit of the distance when stepped up to that trip for the first time. Of all the juvenile champions trying to win three-year-old classics, she appears far and away the most likely to accomplish that feat.

2. Leontes (King Kamehameha - Cesario, by Special Week)
JPN 2yo, Katsuhiko Sumii

Those who remember Cesario's romp in the 2005 American Oaks at Hollywood Park will recognize her son straight away. A spitting image of his mother, Leontes is a big strapping son of Deep Impact who towers over his peers in terms of size and strength. Still very raw, he fought his jockey throughout his entire debut run while wide and at times without cover and yet when asked, he burst four wide around the bend en route to an easy victory. A half brother to 2014 Japan Cup winner Epiphaneia, Leontes was the first horse to win Japan's two-year-old feature Asahi Hai Futurity at only his second start since the beginning of the graded stakes system in Japan in the mid-1980s. The scary part is that he clearly has more development in him, both physically and mentally, which should lead to further improvement over time.

3. Songbird (Medaglia d'Oro - Ivanavinalot, by West Acre)
US (KY) 2yo, Jerry Hollendorfer
United States

While American Pharoah was clearly the best horse in America (and the world) this past year, no American runner dominated their division quite like Songbird. Stylistically, she harks back to her dam Ivanovinalot, a speedy Florida runner who won the G2 Bonnie Miss Stakes at Gulfstream Park over one and one eighth miles. Being able to sustain front-end speed over a distance is one of the greatest weapons a dirt runner can possess and it shows in her results, as she has never won by less than 4.5 lengths. The combined margin of her four victories? 22 lengths. Connections have indicated they don't plan to run her against the males, so expect her to head towards the G1 Kentucky Oaks.

4. Jameka (Myboycharlie - Mine Game, by General Nediym)
AUS 3yo, Ciaron Maher

A daughter of young breakthrough stallion Myboycharlie, Jameka showed potential from the start, but often found a few too good before her maiden victory in the G2 VRC Sires’ Produce Stakes at Flemington at her fourth career start. A versatile filly, she can be ridden off the pace and yet when pushed forward in the G1 Oaks over 2500m at Flemington, her trademark turn of foot was as good as demonstrated despite being ridden on the pace. While she may not offer the potential progression of others on this list, a horse who has her speed and stamina (having shown her real potential at 2,000+ meters) is going to win races.

5. Hartley (Deep Impact - Wickedly Perfect, by Congrats)
JPN 2yo, Takahisa Tezuka

It seems every year Deep Impact has a few good ones and this year is no exception. The influx of classy international racemares has only further strengthened his already outstanding books and Hartley is the product of such a mating. Out of former Doug O'Neill trainee Wickedly Perfect -- a daughter of Congrats who won the G1 Alcibiades Stakes -- Hartley is every bit the classy two-year-old he was bred to be. With a superior closing kick, Hartley figures to fit right in with the typical large Japanese fields with races run at moderate tempos. There is every reason to believe Hartley is the best Japanese juvenile, but while he possesses obvious class, he perhaps doesn't offer the extent of improvement of his compatriot Leontes.

6. Swipe (Birdstone - Avalanche Lily, by Grand Slam)
USA (KY) 2yo, Keith Desormeaux
United States

While Nyquist may have beaten him countless times now, as the distances increase along the three-year-old Kentucky Derby trail, there is every reason to believe this son of Birdstone will reverse that form. Looking every bit a router physically, Swipe has clearly improved for each step up in trip he has had and the way he finished off the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile -- fastest of all and over three-tenths faster than Nyquist in the final sectional -- there's reason to believe that the step up to nine furlongs will be ideal. With tactical versatility, stamina and mental soundness on his side, Swipe has all the markings of a top Kentucky Derby contender.

7. Ami's Mesa (Sky Mesa - Victorious Ami, by Victory Gallop)
ON 2yo, Josie Carroll

A winner of both of starts to date, Ami's Mesa possess a turn of foot unmatched by this year's juvenile crop. She has both the speed to stay in touch over the all-weather and the breeding and sharp turn of foot necessary in quality turf events, should she be tried over the surface. A half-sister to G3 Grey Stakes winner Ami's Holiday, Ami's Mesa looks to be still figuring things out, but with a bit more seasoning she should reach new heights.

8. Air Force Blue (War Front - Chatham, by Maria's Mon)
USA (KY) 2yo, Aidan O'Brien

A winner of four from five, Air Force Blue hasn't done much wrong in his career to date. Clearly the best of the Ballydoyle charge, Air Force Blue still shows signs of greenness, but should he become more professional in nature in the offseason, he'd be extremely difficult to beat in the 2000 Guineas. While at times, progeny of War Front have been criticized as being merely precocious types, Air Force Blue physically appears to have quite a bit of scope about him. His full sister Bugle won over one and one sixteenth miles at Churchill Downs and the American influences of Maria's Mon and Seeking The Gold in his pedigree should result in him seeing out a mile no problem.

9. Mohaymen (Tapit - Justwhistledixie, by Dixie Union)
USA (KY) 2yo, Kiaran McLaughlin
United States

So often those who have big reputations as a result of their breeding fail to live up to expectations, but that is not the case for Mohaymen, a son of leading American sire Tapit and a half to Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner New Year's Day. Purchased for $2.2 million in the 2014 Keeneland September sale, he was workmanlike in his maiden victory over six furlongs. He's another on this list who has improved for added distance, however, and in doing so he completed the G2 Nashua - G2 Remsen double, getting Lasix for the first time in the latter. In a year where the juvenile crop has lacked many who look like true Derby contenders, Mohaymen's tactical versatility and the ease with which he passes runners (inside and out) stands out. His effortless win over the one and one eighth trip of the Remsen also makes him one of very few who have the look of a true "classic distance" horse.

10. Xtravagant (Pentire - Axiom, by Zabeel)
NZ 3yo, Stephen Autridge and Jamie Richards
New Zealand

Few young horses travel with the same authority as this son of Pentire does in running and seemingly time and time again, he's able to put fields away in a matter of three or four strides. Xtravagant, a NZ$375,000 purchase at the Karaka Premier sale, is the full brother to New Zealand 2000 Guineas runner-up He's Remarkable and he is out of a daughter of leading broodmare sire Zabeel, winner of the Australian Guineas who unfortunately died at the age of 29 earlier this year. From start to finish, Xtravagant pummels the competition, as he routinely shoots out of the barriers fastest of them all and often gallops out far past the field after the finish. While only tested over 1600m to date, his performances combined with the gallop outs indicate this is a true stayer in the making. At a time when Kiwi racing is thriving, particularly when it comes to stamina tests -- over which they've historically dominated -- and with planned targets including the G1 Australian Guineas and G1 Australian Derby, Xtravagant looks the next Kiwi to make his mark Down Under.

11. People's Knight (Exceed And Excel - Allegra, by Dehere)
AUS 3yo, John Moore
Hong Kong

An A$1 million dollar purchase at the 2014 Inglis Australian Easter yearling sale, People's Knight came to Hong Kong with a mountain of expectations on his back. Having won griffin races over subsequent winners General of Patch and Classic Emperor, People's Knight’s form was franked on multiple occasions before he finished second against a group of smart older horses including the winner Jolly Jolly. Back against his age group in his second run of the season, he flew home fastest of them all by a wide margin. From the family of US Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, People's Knight looks set to shoot up the local rankings.

12. Perfect Reflection (More Than Ready - Reflected Image, by Bluebird)
AUS 3yo, Grant Williams

A daughter of Bluebird mare Reflected Image, winner of the 1999 G2 Western Australian Oaks, is a full sibling to Listed stakes winner Ideal Image. A winner of five-from-five to date, she stamped herself as a true up-and-comer when she became the first three-year-old filly to win the G1 Kingston Town Classic over stablemate Delicacy. While she has been sent to the paddock, the runner-up has since gone on to convincingly win a G2, further franking that form.

13. OS Hwadap (Friesan Fire - Meg's A Lady, by Menifee)
USA (PA) 2yo
South Korea

Undefeated in four starts, OS Hwadap's biggest win to date came earlier this month in a Juvenile Special which was open to imported horses. In a powerful front-running display, OS Hwadap put away a field which included two-from-two Keeneland September graduate Miso Wangja. A $50,000 2015 Fasig-Tipton Midatlantic purchase, OS Hwadap looks to be another progressive descendant of Menifee in one of Asia's emerging jurisdictions.

14. Airoforce (Colonel John - Chocolate Pop, by Cuvee)
USA (KY) 2yo, Mark Casse
United States

Out of a solid racemare in her own right, Chocolate Pop -- second in the 2009 Busanda Stakes -- Airoforce was an impressive winner when taking the G3 Dixiana Bourbon Stakes over a large field of well-bred horses at Keeneland in what was only his second start. He arguably ran his best race to date in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf when second to Hit It A Bomb despite traffic troubles over a yielding turf course. His G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes win was flashy and has since been boosted by the win of Mor Spirit in the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity, but a sloppy track win doesn't mean he would handle a dry dirt surface. With influences like Mr. Prospector and In Reality via Relaunch indicating he would take to a sloppy surface, he'll have to prove that dry dirt is no issue in order to be a true Kentucky Derby contender. Even if that doesn't work out, though, he can always head back to the turf -- a division ripe for the taking.

15. Robin of Navan (American Post - Cloghran, by Muhtathir)
FR 2yo, Harry Dunlop

Never worse than second since his debut, Robin of Navan has found a home in French races where his early speed can be used as a serious weapon. He's a straightforward type in that he typically goes forward and more often than not, he simply hasn't stopped. Having won over ground ranging from good to very soft, there doesn't seem to be a course condition which really hampers him and he has won going both left and right-handed. He's provided a fairy tale story for connections, as he is his trainer's first G1 winner, and with the French classics his aim and a win at Chantilly under his belt, he looks to take the feel good story to new heights.

16. Get Jets (Scat Daddy - Sunny, by Dixieland Band)
USA (NY) 2yo, Anthony Dutrow
United States

A winner on debut, Get Jets always looked a horse who would always need much further than the six furlongs he competed over that day. While he took a substantial amount of money as the low priced second favorite in his subsequent start in the Betram F. Bongard Stakes at Belmont, he just missed, closing behind lone speed Sudden Surprise who has since won two stakes. Further improvement was seen when stepped up to a mile, where despite a wide trip, he cruised past a well-meant Fish Trappe Road late, relishing every bit of the added distance. Given how erratic the runner-up was in deep stretch, it was also encouraging to see Get Jets keep to task in spite of that happening near him. He's not as accomplished as the other Americans listed to this point, but Get Jets seems to be flying under the Kentucky Derby trail radar despite showing an affinity for routes.

17. Sanus Per Aquam (Teofilo - Fainne, by Peintre Celebre)
IRE 2yo, Jim Bolger

A large, scopey type, Sanus Per Aquam looks every bit a late developer so it's encouraging to see the quality of competition he's competed with to date. A winner of the Group 3 Tattersall Stakes at Newmarket over seven furlongs, Sanus Per Aquam won in spectacular fashion when struggling with the course configuration and being outpaced when the field quickened around him. He was no match for Air Force Blue in the G1 Dewhurst, but again he appeared to both still be learning his job and in need of substantially further. Perhaps an Irish Derby or St Leger type down the road, with physical maturity expected in the offseason, Sanus Per Aquam appears one to follow once he gets the step up in trip that he so desperately needs.

18. Magnum (Per Incanto - Sound Lover, by Sound Reason)
NZ 3yo, Michael Freedman

A winner of two from four starts, Magnum did plenty wrong in his most recent victory in a $75,000 Graduation race. Despite overracing throughout the beginning stages and struggling to handle the bend, Magnum showed exactly why he was one of the more fancied runners in the event when he found the line strongly to overcome his rivals (and himself, for that matter). The way he finished there, the step up in trip to 1600m for the G1 Singapore Guineas appears ideal, and with time and further education awaiting him in the meantime, he appears every bit an improver.

19. Ava's Kitten (Kitten's Joy - Reachfortheheavens, by Pulpit)
USA (KY) 2yo, Chad Brown
United States

It took Ava's Kitten a few starts to find her way into the winner's circle, but she backed up that maiden victory with an impressive win in the Chelsey Flower Stakes at Belmont Park. Despite pulling hard throughout while wide for most of the running, covering substantially more ground than most. Should she learn to relax with more experience, she'll be one to keep an eye on in a wide open filly and mare turf mile division aside from Tepin. Still young and raw, she possesses one of the key pedigree marks for Kitten's Joy progeny and that's being inbred to Roberto, a hallmark which is seen in nearly all of his most successful sons and daughters.

20. Serienholde (Soldier Hollow - Saldenehre, by Highest Honor)
GER 2yo, Andreas Wohler

Twice having finished second, Serienholde was more impressive when second to Dhaba in the G3 Preis Der Winterkonigin at Baden-Baden. Having chased the leaders throughout, she hit the front before being overtaken late and yet she still stayed on well to fend off the third-placed Pagella. A half to Auteuil G3 Hurdle Handicap winner Serienschock and G3 Maurice Lacroix-Trophy winner Serienhoehe, Serienholde hails from the family of G3 Deutscher Stutenpreis winner Saldenschwinge, G3 Baden Wurttemberg-Trophy winner Saldentigerin, and G1 placed Saltas. With a stamina and durability-laden pedigree, one can expect there is plenty more to come from Serienholde in the next year.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

12/26 Japan Plays (Nakayama)

Picks and Plays from Japan:

Race 9: #6 Hartley
Sunday Racing's son of Deep Impact looked a smart two-year-old when closing from the clouds to win on debut. He doesn't have the luxury of Ryan Moore aboard this time around after he copped a suspension for his winning ride aboard Maurice in the Hong Kong Mile. Hartley does get a fine replacement in the form of Hugh Bowman. Well-bred, Hartley is out of former Doug O'Neill runner Wickedly Perfect, who won the G1 Alcibiades in 2010. In a race which features a great deal of front end speed, Hartley figures to be roaring home late. 

Play: Win bet #6 Hartley

Race 10: #7 Gold Actor
The featured Arima Kinen is a more complex race from a pace scenario. There are a fair number of frontrunners, but those horses who do typically go forward don't go especially hard early in their races. For that reason, we'll give the slight edge to individuals who are likely to be placed in the front half of the field early. He's unproven versus this quality of competition, but Gold Actor -- third in last year's G1 Kikuka Sho -- enters here with three straight wins and looks to be well placed from barrier seven in a race which should suit him to a tee from a pace and distance perspective. He appears to have recovered well from his knee injury and looks a ripe chance to make the frame at a nice price. While they won't be privy to the same setup, it's impossible to ignore Gold Ship -- who'll have been primed for what is the final race of his career -- and G1 Yushun Himba runner-up Rouge Buck in what will be her second-up run of this form cycle. Rouge Buck will have the poor recent record for fillies in this race to overcome, but she's always looked a progressive type and given how well she ran first-up in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup, a big effort is expected from her here. As far as Gold Ship is concerned, make sure to have a look at him on course before betting. When he appears cool, calm, and collected -- as he did last time out -- he tends to flop. Three-year-olds Lia Fail and Kitasan Black offer place claims entering this race in good form and likely being two who will control the tempo from the outset. 

Play: Win/show bet #7 Gold Actor
          7,13 exacta box
          7,13 / 7,13,15 / 7,11,12,13,15 trifecta

Thursday, December 17, 2015

HKIR: An Early Christmas Carol And The Emergence Of A New Era

‘Twas a chilly Sunday evening when the local punter entered the front doors of the spacious Sha Tin facility. As tens of thousands filled with glee flooded onto the grounds, their excitement apparent and cheers deafening, he was disgusted. The magic of the Longines Hong Kong International Races, which had captivated one and all, had not affected him in the same manner.

“What makes today so special?,” he thought. “Racing is racing. Punting is punting. Each day is no different from the rest.”

But as he wandered with form in hand, counting his HK$100 notes, he was met by the Ghost of HKIRs Past.

Staring him in the face was a massive figure, a physically imposing specimen with a quiet and calm temperament unexpected from a horse of his stature.

That recognizable figure was superstar Able Friend -- and with him, the vision of the locals’ dominance in the Hong Kong Mile. The past nine editions were won by the home team and it was he -- the highest rated horse internationally in the jurisdiction’s history and Longines’ highest ranked miler in the world -- who led the charge once again.

While, on the surface, it seemed an uphill battle for his opponents to face him at the racecourse where he’d earned his fame, a four-year-old named Maurice -- a winner of five straight, including Japan’s two biggest mile races -- was up to the challenge.

To suggest he would end the local streak earlier in the week would have been laughable. He clearly failed to acclimatize to his new surroundings initially following his short hop over from Japan, appearing nervous and sweaty on track each morning. His appearance steadily improved throughout the week to such a degree that not even Able Friend on his home turf could stand in the way of the son of Screen Hero, who caused his own shock winning the Japan Cup in 2008.

No other event is more intertwined with Hong Kong’s ascension on the global horse racing scene than this race, so to see one of its better runners to represent the jurisdiction toppled fairly easily was shocking, regardless of the announcement of Able Friend’s foot ailment earlier in the day.

Past victors Flintshire and Designs On Rome were also usurped from their Vase and Cup thrones respectively by Ireland’s Highland Reel, a globetrotting son of Galileo who led home a three-year-old trio in the feature staying event, and Japan’s A Shin Hikari, a horse who in spite of his obvious talent had been known more for his quirks and misbehavior than his successes before his runaway victory.

Three defending champions were sent off as favorites and all three lost in rather convincing fashion. The punter was spooked by what he had seen, but he wanted to know more. If not them, then who would ascend to the top on the day?

Thus emerges the vision of HKIRs Present, via the hallmark son of Dandy Man: Peniaphobia.

Three times a winner in Great Britain, including a win in the Wetherbys Super Sprint, before arriving in Hong Kong, Peniaphobia’s first local win came at his third start -- the first time he appeared with his now-distinctive brown cheekpieces. He was the only horse to break 23 seconds for his final 400m sectional that day, throwing down an impressive 22.59 en route to passing long-time leader Sight Believer in the final stride of the 1,000m Class Three at Happy Valley. He would go on to win four of his next seven, rising over 20 points in the ratings during that period, made more impressive by the fact he was only a three-year-old.

While his results this season were perhaps below the lofty expectations which had been set for him, his individual performances were outstanding. After an ideal start, from a preparation standpoint at least, in the HKG3 National Day Cup, he had no chance when sent forward in two races which were run at such vigorous early tempos that they essentially collapsed late. Regardless, he by far stayed on best of those who showed early toe in both races and when he was handed the opportunity of a soft lead in the G1 Hong Kong Sprint, he left everyone behind.

This was not only a victory for Peniaphobia and for all those who had expected so much from the tenacious bay, but it was also a measure of the current state of Hong Kong’s sprinting ranks. Additionally, in the past year, Hong Kong-trained horses made up three of the four placings in Dubai’s two G1 sprints, the Al Quoz Sprint and the Golden Shaheen, in addition to winning international G1 sprints in Japan (the Takamatsunomiya Kinen) and Singapore (the KrisFlyer Sprint) with Aerovelocity.

It’s far from the first time Hong Kong has experienced sprinting success abroad with Little Bridge and Cape of Good Hope winning at Royal Ascot, the latter also winning the G1 Australia Stakes at Moonee Valley, while the great Silent Witness was the first international runner to win the JPNG1 Sprinters Stakes. In more recent times, Hong Kong sprinters won five of the last seven runnings of the KrisFlyer Sprint, Sterling City won the Golden Shaheen, Amber Sky won the Al Quoz Sprint and Rich Tapestry won an American Grade One on dirt.

At this time, though, it’s the depth of the division overall which is notable. And if Peniaphobia’s powerful front-running win wasn’t enough of an exclamation mark, second, third and fourth in the Hong Kong Sprint were all locals in a race which included recent G1 winners from Japan, Ireland, and the United States.

Over longer distances, it was the Japanese once again asserting themselves as the top source of quality middle distance runners with Maurice winning the Hong Kong Mile and A Shin Hikari and Nuovo Record filling the quinella in the Hong Kong Cup.

Prior to this meeting, Japanese racing as a whole had endured a tough 2015 as it struggled to maintain its status atop the middle distance rankings -- in particular, the industry failed to recover from the retirements of Gentildonna, Just A Way, Epiphaneia and Kizuna, primarily as a result of setbacks sidelining dual classic winner Duramente and fellow G1 winners Real Steel and Toho Jackal.

Class was the query for eventual Cup winner A Shin Hikari, who had been nothing short of professional in the days leading up to the featured event. Back to his signature front-running style, which had deserted him at his disappointing last start effort in the G1 Tenno Sho (Autumn), he transferred the professionalism he’d shown in the mornings to the race itself, allowing jockey Yutaka Take to rate him perfectly on the lead.

Closing furiously behind was his countrywoman, 2014 G1 Yushun Himba winner Nuovo Record, who, off a three-month spell, had twice found one better. For the second race in a row, too, she was handed a brutal draw -- widest of them all. Despite 2,000m being slightly short of her best, she flew home fastest of all with a 22.71 final 400m.

For a nation which was desperately looking for a new star, by meeting’s end they had three.  

And with the solemn notes of Kimigayo marking their successes, the Land of the Rising Sun made an emphatic statement that they are again a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

Looking towards the HKIRs yet to come, there are plenty of reasons for optimism -- not only for future editions of this meeting, but for the quality of local racing as a whole.

Aside from the featured events, the Longines Hong Kong International Races undercard is historically the coming out, the presentation of the next crop of stars. Future international G1 winners Aerovelocity, Able Friend, Rich Tapestry and California Memory all ran well on this card in the past five years.

In fitting fashion, the most exciting prospect closed out the day with a victory. From the family of HKG1 Hong Kong Classic Mile placegetter All’s Well, Fabulous One -- who was unplaced as a three-year-old -- reeled off his fourth straight win over 1,200m at Sha Tin, dominating from the front yet again, looking every bit a future Group horse in doing so.

Two others who also showed they are on an upward swing were Sun Jewellery and Amazing Kids, who flew the flag for John Size’s yard -- which, at the moment, is overflowing with classy four-year-olds. While the latter looks a promising sprinter, the former, a son of Snitzel, has the HKG1 Hong Kong Derby in his sights having won four-from-five and never finishing worse than second in his local career.

Formerly known as Tan Tat Sun in Australia, Sun Jewellery defeated Winston’s Lad in his maiden victory at Bairnsdale in Victoria and, interestingly, the runner-up that day was another standout on the HKIR undercard. Ever so easily winning the 1,200m Class Three with Brett Prebble aboard, Winston’s Lad is now two-from-two in Hong Kong and appears to have ratings points in hand.

Not to be forgotten is People’s Knight, still just a early season three-year-old, having been bred in Australia. He stayed on well in what was his first start of the season to finish second behind a nice-looking horse in his own right: Jolly Jolly. An A$1 million purchase at the 2013 Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale, People’s Knight is by Exceed and Excel out of a half-sister to the dam of G1 Golden Slipper winner Mossfun. With a speedy and precocious pedigree backing up his obvious physical talents, expect People’s Knight to be one who will make a large step forward ratings-wise this season.

Having seen the changing of the guard take place right before his eyes, the punter gained a true understanding of where the HKIR meeting stands presently.

While a true racing world championship meeting is currently nonexistent, HKIR serves as a perfect middle marker between season-ending meetings in England, France and America, as well as carnivals in Australia and Japan, and the upcoming international meeting in Dubai. It offers a spot for veterans who have perhaps just missed in prestigious events such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Japan Cup, in addition to Northern Hemisphere three-year-olds attempting to move up another rung on the ladder before they turn four. Looking for one last run and a crack at additional black-type before sending your horse off to stud? You can get that here, as well.

While it’s not routinely the featured turf card on the global calendar, regularly taking a back seat to the Dubai World Cup and Royal Ascot meetings -- which, in the case of the former, offers mammoth money, whereas the latter has both tradition and prestige -- this meeting more than filled its spot on the racing calendar, with four showpiece events featuring 29 individual international G1 winners.

Allowing for the melding of formlines from all four corners of the world, a spotlight for the stars of the past year, and a debutante ball-like welcoming of the stars of tomorrow, this was a far cry from your average day of racing. Mission accomplished.

And yet, with the ever-increasing quality and competitiveness of Asian racing, along with the willingness of Western trainers to ship accomplished individuals, the takeaway is not that this is the world’s best race meeting in its current state -- a title which varies from year-to-year to begin with -- but that it easily has the most upside.

While not yet the racing calendar’s Frankel, the HKIR meeting is more the Limato: new, fresh, in-your face, with that flash of brilliance and plenty of grit -- good as it is in current form, but with greatness a possibility given time, experience, and maturity. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hong Kong's Dirt-y Dilemma? Not On Our Turf

It's no secret that outside America, horse racing is essentially turf racing -- at least, those races which matter most.

In the States, though, the weather, as well as the sheer number of race days at most tracks, plays a large role in why dirt reigns supreme. Not to mention, dirt has historically been the preferred surface for America's best runners. 

Regardless, turf racing not only exists but thrives within America's borders, as has been shown in recent years through Breeders' Cup winners Wise Dan and Tepin and G1 Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man. American-trained turf runners have even begun to make inroads in marquee events overseas -- just have a look at the most recent overseas performances by Acapulco, Undrafted and Miss Temple City. 

Turf racing is, and always will be, second best in America -- and rightfully so, really. Recent changes to the Eclipse Awards -- the renaming of Older Male to Older Dirt Male and the equivalent for the older females -- only reinforces this sentiment further. 

But as much as US racing fans at times have hoped accomplished turf horses like Wise Dan would taken on the best dirt gallopers in his prime -- he was a G1 dirt winner, after all -- imagine if a horse like him had not other options and was forced to race on dirt.

That's the case, albeit reversed, in Hong Kong. In a jurisdiction where racing is dependent on ratings, horses are only permitted to run in races in which they are eligible -- where they fit within the ratings band. For example, a horse rated 93 could run in a 100-80 Class 2, but would be ineligible for a 120-95 Class 1. Ratings are adjusted up or down based on performance, with a horse's rating moving up a minimum of five points for each win. 

In Hong Kong, dirt racing typically features lesser quality individuals, with no Group races on the erroneously named "all-weather track", so when a dirt horse reaches the upper echelons of the ratings, a decision must be made. 

Take eight-year-old veteran Lucky Nine. The son of Dubawi twice ran over the dirt in his first five local starts, resulting in a three-length win and a runner-up finish. He thrived over the surface, but after only seven local races he reached stakes company. His dirt days were done and in the six seasons since, he has only raced once on dirt and that was in Dubai. 

More recently, Rich Tapestry twice ran over the dirt at Sha Tin, both of which he won easily. By comparison, though, he has struggled on turf at the local Group level. While he has one HKG2 victory, he has never finished better than fifth in four other Group races. Unlike Lucky Nine, however, Rich Tapestry's connections have sought to return him to his preferred surface by the only means possible: travelling. To their credit, his international expeditions have met with great success -- in five overseas runs on either dirt or AW, Rich Tapestry has won twice, including the G1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, and he has only once finished off the board, when he was found to have bled. 

Looking to follow in his globetrotting footsteps is Gun Pit, a son of Dubawi who has taken the Hong Kong dirt scene by storm. Boasting a perfect seven-for-seven record over the surface, Gun Pit began this season in thrilling fashion -- breaking his own 1,650m track record when winning by two lengths, spotting second-placed Eroico 21 pounds. In doing so, his rating was boosted nine points from 112 to 121 and his Class 1 days for the near future were done. As a result, his days wowing the locals are also likely done, at least for now. Just days after his big win, he was sent to Japan to compete in this weekend's G1 Champions Cup, a race formerly known as the Japan Cup Dirt. Should that foray prove to be successful, potential targets such as the Dubai World Cup have been mentioned by trainer Caspar Fownes. 

On one hand, it seems somewhat cruel that a horse is punished, to some extent, for being "too good" -- by virtue of having no opportunities to run on his preferred surface locally. Putting the best dirt runners on turf isn't ideal and travelling them can be expensive, as Rich Tapestry's trainer Michael Chang learned the hard way after running his charge in California. 

The chance of dirt Group races being carded, however, appears unlikely, partially due to the notion of dirt races being second-tier. More importantly, there is a small horse population stabled locally, fluctuating somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 horses. There are rarely full fields in turf Group races, so with less interest from connections, the demand simply isn't there.

Nevertheless, imagine the best American turf horses couldn't run over the surface any longer because they were "too good". It is unfathomable. What if Wise Dan couldn't have campaigned in the United States as a result of having won too many turf races? 

So when we, as Americans, look back at some of the best turf runners this country has produced in recent years -- the English Channels and Mizdirections -- perhaps instead of wishing they were racing over a different surface, we can be grateful our stars have the ability to race on their preferred surface and wow us local fans. It's a privilege not all racing fans are granted ... just ask those in Hong Kong.