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. 

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