It's the biggest day of the season in Hong Kong on Sunday and Graham Cunningham looks ahead to a mouthwatering card.
The Bubble has been bruised but hasn't burst as HK racing prepares for its showpiece event of the year.
Nerves started to jangle when Christophe Soumillon's latest Covid-19 test showed signs of abnormality on Thursday. The Belgian ace misses his Sunday rides despite testing negative subsequently, while homegrown hero Vincent Ho has been cleared to ride after a Covid case was reported in his apartment block on Friday.
But when Sunday comes the LONGINES HKIR is what it always is - namely the last great global racing event of the year.
The four G1 contests live on Sky Sports Racing contain 15 individual G1 winners of 38 top-level contests and Aidan O'Brien's globetrotting mare Magical will be bidding to eclipse all of them when she seeks to make Ballydoyle history in the Hong Kong Cup at 8.30.
This year's Vase has no Japanese runners and fewer Europeans than normal and therefore the trio to focus on have to be Exultant, Mogul and Columbus County.
HK's Horse of the Year Exultant finished third in Churchill's Irish Guineas when known as Irishcorrespondent and now boasts HK G1 form figures that read 11213211, including a brave win in the 2018 renewal of this and a decent third from a wide draw last year. He's found the rejuvenated Furore too good twice over shorter trips this season but will be fully primed now for a duel with another Ballydoyle star.
Mogul is the colt in question and his international rating of 121 puts him just ahead of Exultant. But Mogul has only achieved that figure once, when storming clear of Arc runner-up In Swoop in a strongly-run Grand Prix de Paris, while Exultant has hit that level numerous times and will highly likely do so again here on home turf in a race that has been his main target all season.
Columbus County is improving and should go well despite being 5lb worse off than when behind Exultant last month but this has the look of a match. Exultant is a strong stayer, capable of sustaining top pace for much longer than most, and Zac Purton will probably kick for home off the final bend. Ryan Moore will be aiming to stalk and pounce on Mogul but some races are just a little to close to call. This might well be one of them.
If Aussie import Classique Legend is at his very best then the others could be playing for places. But if an unusual preparation takes a toll then the it's a wildly open affair with any number of possible winners.
That's the short summary for the richest G1 turf sprint in the world but the value probably lies in chasing the upset.
Classique Legend lines up as the joint highest rated sprinter on the planet (125) after beating most of Australia's fastest horses hollow in the Everest in October. So far so persuasive - and the way the 'Grey Flash' powered home from well back at Randwick was striking - but he left longtime handler Les Bridge to go into Melbourne quarantine soon after and has since had another two weeks in HK quarantine before joining Caspar Fownes.
Previous connections raved about Classique Legend's relaxed attitude, which should help him adapt to an intense new environment, but taking short odds about a confirmed holdup sprinter drawn on the inner after a fragmented preparation does come with risks.
Last year's runner up Hot King Prawn is the obvious alternative and is still much the same horse as last year judged on his narrow yet quite decisive defeat of several of these in the G2 Jockey Club Sprint last month. Another remarkably laid back horse by sprint standards, Joao Moreira's mount is highly reliable and bound to go well again but early moves suggest that he's set to jump as favourite and he doesn't have as much in hand of old rivals as those early quotes suggest.
Computer Patch is one of those old foes and he's interesting. The ride on him as been a movable feast of late, with Moreira decamping to Hot King Prawn and Karis Teetan jocked off in favour of Christophe Soumillon until the Belgian ran into further Covid issues. Alexis Badel steps in and Computer Patch is a live one having recorded career best figures on his last two starts despite going off harder than ideal.
Stall 11 is wider than connections would have preferred but it reduces the chance of Computer Patch getting drawn into a pace duel and, with Badel one of the coming forces on the HK scene, his chances of making an upgrade at a fair price look bright.
There is only so much a horse can do if a main rival uncoils a final 400m split of around 21.5s. That's what a peak-form Golden Sixty is capable of granted smooth sailing and the new poster boy of HK racing brings a seductive profile to his first G1 test.
Francis Lui's gelding has won 13 of 14 - including a last-gasp success in last season's Derby - and has continued to thrive with two big handicap wins and a typically clinical G2 success in the Jockey Club Mile last month.
Ka Ying Star, Southern Legend and Mighty Giant look held and dual previous winner Beauty Generation - now meeting Golden Sixty at levels having tried in vain to concede 17lb and 10lb this term - will have to perform one of the great comebacks to master a field like this at eight.
Order Of Australia would complete a remarkable reinvention of his own if he seals a Breeders' Cup/HK Mile double after a preparation consisting of four runs over a mile and a quarter and two over a mile and a half.
Aidan O'Brien's colt was long-odds revelation at Keeneland, leading home a Ballydoyle 1-2-3 from stall 14 under a daring Pierre-Charles Boudot ride, and the international handicappers have given him full credit for a a startling career best with a new mark of 120. The market may well underestimate him again but, one way or another, the 2019 HK Mile could be a key pointer for the 2020 edition.
Waikuku ran a screamer for second that day and the fact that he hasn't been seen since April should be set against the fact that his trainer John Size won the 2013 Mile with Glorious Days on his seasonal reappearance.
But Admire Mars looks the biggest danger to a Golden Sixty success. Soumillon thought this Japanese colt was vastly underrated at 26-1 twelve months ago and Admire Mars won completely on merit, battling on tenaciously to master Waikuku and Beauty Generation. What's more, he's building to a peak after a fine third (conceding 5lb) to the exceptional Gran Alegria in the Mile Championship three weeks ago.
Golden Sixty has never stopped improving over the last twelve months and is now up to an international mark of 119 with the prospect of better to come. But a tidal wave of local support looks set to send him off at a scarily short price.
Take off the hometown specs and it's crystal clear that this is the deepest field Golden Sixty has ever been in. The value might well lie among the visitors and, with Ryan Moore replacing the sidelined Soumi, Admire Mars looks set to test the Golden boy of HK racing to the full.
The romance angle has Magical battling home under Ryan Moore to become the first horse in Ballydoyle history to capture eight G1 contests.
The hometown angle has last year's HK Derby hero Furore continuing his resurgence under Moreira to make it three out of three for the season.
Course and distance aficionados might see last year's winner Win Bright making it a perfect 3-3 in G1 contests at Sha Tin before retiring to stud in Japan.
And a few value merchants might think it's worth taking a chance that French raider Skalleti - just ahead of Magical when the pair chased home Addeybb in the Champion Stakes - will handle much faster ground than he's been used to in Europe.
But what about the angle of a Japanese raider who already has very little to find with the best of these and might just be poised to produce the performance of his life under conditions that look perfect?
There's no question that the Japanese middle distance pool is deeper than the HK version and Danon Premium has been swimming in to strong effect for some while, including when catching the eye for the second year running behind Almond Eye in the Tenno Sho last month.
Danon Premium raced freely in front on his first run since June that day, no match for the brilliant winner yet giving the impression that he was probably the second best horse in the race as the high-class Chrono Genesis and Fierement claimed the places.
With the freewheeling Time Warp on deck it will come as a big surprise Danon Premium isn't ridden with more patience this time and the fact that William Buick is aboard for the first time is very interesting.
He could well be that rare thing in HK - namely a horse who should be favourite but doesn't go off favourite - and everything looks in place for him to have a very significant say in HK racing's most cherished prize.