Graham Cunningham brings us the latest news from the Hong Kong racing scene and looks ahead to Sunday's highlight at Sha Tin - the Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup.
Sha Tin stays open as Sevens fall
The lowest crowd ever for a card featuring two G1 contests isn't readily accessible but Sha Tin looks set to challenge it on Sunday when two of Hong Kong's biggest races take place with just owners, trainers, jockeys and key officials in attendance.
Measures to restrict coronavirus are decimating the local sporting calendar - with the famous Rugby Sevens following the HK Marathon and Longines Masters showjumping on the casualty list - but racing's show rolls on after the HKJC imposed further attendance restrictions.
Estimates suggested that between 400 and 600 people would be at Happy Valley on Wednesday night but in the event only 122 members attended for a card which saw John Moore's Stronger set a new 1000m track record of 56.11s under Zac Purton.
HK's Tote monopoly generates huge revenue - with around £10m in tax to the government from Wednesday's Happy Valley meeting alone - and the HKJC are boosting community efforts with a £5m Emergency Fund and £2.3m for food and essentials to the disabled and elderly.
Size on the prize as Ping pops at 159-1
Perhaps it was the tranquil atmosphere generated by the absence of Beer Garden revellers but something certainly brought out the best in a handful of horses who ended lengthy losing streaks at Happy Valley on Wednesday.
Amazing broke his HK duck at the 22nd attempt in the opener; Bulb Elite ended a run of 24 outs half an hour later; Heavenly Thought broke through after 17 defeats in race six; and Farshad completed a great night for former bridesmaids by saluting at the 17th attempt in the next.
It says much for the patience of HK punters that three of the four were well backed and, despite the absence of on-course punters and closure of HK's 101 Off Course Betting Branches, total turnover for the eight-race card was still around £100m.
You could hear a pin drop during the finish of most races. And a sharp pin was needed to find Ping Hai Galaxy, who gave eleven-times champion trainer John Size the longest-priced winner of his career (and there have been 1233 of them) when showing vastly-improved form to land the nightcap.
"They didn't respect the trainer too much," joked Size as he reflected on the boilover with the South China Morning Post's Tom Biddington.
The laconic Size sends another of his Ping brigade out on Sunday. There won't be any fancy prices about the strapping Ping Hai Bravo in the Citi Priority Handicap - but the outcome might well be the same judged on his fine second behind a potentially smart winner three weeks ago.
Callan stays, Badel goes in latest HK jockey shuffle
Hong Kong's fabled jockey merry-go-round stopped briefly on Friday and by the time it moved off again it was a case of three out, three in and a couple retaining their seats.
Neil Callan and Aussie star Blake Shinn have had their contracts extended to the end of the season, while South African youngster Lyle Hewitson and Frenchmen Alexis Badel and Tony Piccone will be moving on in early March to be replaced at various points by Brazilian Vagner Borges, South African Aldo Domeyer and 10lb claimer Gary Lo.
Borges and Domeyer have both ridden in HK before and another on the comeback road is homegrown claimer Victor Wong, who will return to the fray at Sha Tin next weekend after a long absence caused by serious injuries sustained in a trackwork accident last May.
Hong Kong Highlight - Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup
- Date: February 16th
- Time: 7.20GMT
- Distance: 1400m
- Value: £1m
- Draw: Not significant
Heat Map: Thanks Forever led when running Beat The Clock close last time while Hot King Prawn used to lead in his earlier days sprinting. However, both are unproven over 1400m and it seems unlikely they will push hard against a strong stayer like Beauty Generation. Ka Ying Star is another prominent racer but Beauty Generation is drawn inside him and looks set to roll forward again.
Beauty Generation just got the better of a thrilling duel with Beat The Clock in this race two years ago and beat him with real authority when in his prime twelve months ago. But round three is tantalising for the simple reason that things have changed since.
Beat The Clock is still at the peak of his powers after recording his fourth G1 sprint win in the Centenary Sprint Cup last month, while Beauty Generation in on the recovery trail after four consecutive defeats over a mile. But that doesn't quite tell the full story.
This was the world's highest rated 1400m race in 2019 and the two horses who dominated then and the year before promise to serve up another thriller. Beat The Clock is one of the most consistent G1 horses on the planet and his close second in 2018 gives the lie to suggestions that he doesn't truly stay 1400m at elite level.
Beat The Clock is a potent finisher - highly capable of rattling off a sub 22s final 400m when on song - and Joao Moreira can be relied on to deliver him at the right time if circumstances allow. But Beauty Generation showed more of of his old aggression when worn down by leading miler Waikuku in the Stewards' Cup last month.
Logic suggests there won't be much between the big two in the market and there won't be much between them in the race. Purton holds the key. And if he is bold enough to let Beauty Generation roll from a good way out - clocking around 22s for the second split and a little under 23s for the third - then the old champ might just ring Beat The Clock's alarm for a third year running.
Spencer aiming to cause a Furore on flying visit
Fomer Irish Guineas third Exultant has been HK's leading European import for some while and Tony Cruz's gelding will be a short price to continue his domination of the middle distance division when he bids to repeat last year's success in the Citi Hong Kong Hold Cup at 6.15.
And the British and Irish influence extends through Sunday's card, with Jamie Spencer flying in for five rides headed by last year's Derby winner Furore, who takes on Exultant.
Former Haggas pair Lockheed and Harmony Spirit (aka Victory Day when Spencer won on him at last year's Shergar Cup) will have their hands full with exciting Wellington in the 8.25, while it will be fascinating to see what the market makes of Uncle Steve in the finale at 9am.
Douglas Whyte's gelding - a Beverley winner when known as Court Of Justice for David Simcock - has had lameness issues since winning a strong handicap in October and his latest morning trial over 1000m looked fair at very best.
The return to 1400m will suit but Uncle Steve can't afford to miss a beat after a lengthy lay-off and the likeable front runner Happy Fun looks a very viable alternative with Moreira aboard for the first time and the possibility of a fairly easy lead as an added bonus.