Ben Linfoot catches up with Christophe Lemaire as a strong Japanese challenge heads to the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Japan challenge led by Lemaire
It’s been a bit gloomy in Hong Kong over the last day or so, but the weather gods have only been teasing those trainers that would like a bit of rain.
It ain’t wet yet, although we may get some on Sunday, but emerging from the East is the land of the rising sun, with a red-hot Japanese team poised to take the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races by storm at Sha Tin this weekend.
They’re represented in all four races with Fine Needle a sole Japanese raider in the Sprint, while Lys Gracieux and Crocosmia double up their challenge in the Vase.
It’s in the Mile and the Cup where they’re really strong, however, with Persian Knight and Mozu Ascot particularly interesting contenders against Beauty Generation in the former race.
But if there’s one contest they’re expected to win, it’s the big one, the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup.
Werther’s withdrawal on Wednesday only strengthened their challenge, with Sungrazer and Deirdre now really solid first and second favourites, with the often-wayward Time Warp propping them up in the betting.
And the man leading the charge for Japan from a jockey’s perspective is 39-year-old Frenchman Christophe Lemaire.
He’s aboard Deirdre in the Cup and she’s two from two in Japan since finishing third to Benbatl in the Dubai Turf back in March, winning in Group Three and Group Two company at Sapporo and Tokyo respectively.
Lemaire, who has aged well as you can see in the below video, won the Hong Kong Cup back in 2006 aboard Pride and is excited about the chances of his mount in the race this year.
“I think Deirdre will be my best ride of the day,” said Lemaire. “She looked perfect on Wednesday morning on track work, she won brilliantly her last two starts and she’s an improving filly.
“I think now she’s more mature she’s built up a little bit and she will be a strong contender to win the Hong Kong Cup.
“The ground looks similar, it’s quite a flat track in both Japan and Hong Kong, so Japanese horses are used to doing well here and I have no fear if she will handle the track or not.”
Champion jockey in Japan last year, Lemaire’s big race victories include the 2011 Mebourne Cup aboard Dunaden, a horse that came to Hong Kong after Flemington and won the Vase.
Lemaire wasn’t aboard him at Sha Tin as he was riding for the Aga Khan and he’ll ride for that owner once again this weekend when he gets the leg up aboard Dermot Weld’s Eziyra.
“I don’t know much about her,” he said. “I just know that she ran her last race in America in the Breeders’ Cup where she was very keen on soft ground so maybe it was not the best conditions for her.
“I haven’t talked yet with Mr Weld. Maybe he will talk with me more about how to ride the filly, what are her strong points and what I will have to do with her.”
Whatever happens at Sha Tin this weekend, it has been another wonderful 2018 for Lemaire thanks in part to the emergence of Almond Eye, the brilliant Fillies’ Triple Crown winner in Japan.
An incredible win in the Japan Cup last time made the world sit up and take notice of her abilities and, although it’s a while away, a 2019 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe smash up with Enable could be on the cards if both fillies make it to Longchamp in 10 months’ time.
Lemaire said: “Almond Eye is an amazing filly. She’s got plenty of abilities, she’s got a nice body, a nice temperament and she’s an easy ride.
“She can go to any position during the race and then she’s got strong acceleration. We don’t know yet how far she can go but she’s something special.
“She’s got the potential to at least fight with Enable, hopefully she will be in top condition to run in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe next year and it will be very interesting for the horse racing world to see this match.”
It would indeed. But first Lemaire could end his year on a Hong Kong high if Deirdre gets the better of the boys in Sunday’s $28million HK dollar shootout.
Walker hoping for Stormy breakthrough
It seems to be widely accepted that the Hong Kong Cup is the weakest of the International races this weekend.
Just nine go forward for the race and connections of every horse will feel they can go home with a significant portion of the loot on offer and that’s certainly how Ed Walker feels.
The Lambourn trainer runs Stormy Antarctic in the $28million HK dollar contest and he goes into the race on the back of a career-best effort in the QEII at Ascot last time.
Beaten just a length-and-a-half by Roaring Lion, that effort came over a mile on soft ground, so he’ll be running another two furlongs on Sunday on much faster terrain.
But Walker feels the combination of track, ground and trip will pose no problems for the five-year-old.
“I think 10 furlongs on better ground is probably equally effective for him as a mile on soft,” he said.
“We’re confident he’ll run his race, it was pretty quick ground at Woodbine when he was third in the Mile there.
“I wouldn’t want to run him on a stiff 10 like at Ascot or somewhere like that, he might just struggle to get home, but round here it could be ideal.”
Stormy Antarctic has experienced Sha Tin before, when he was fifth of seven in the May of 2017 in the Champions Mile.
Walker feels you can put a line through that run, though.
“There’s no standout in the race, it looks wide open, and he’s probably going to be a big price because his last run out here was a disaster,” he said.
“He was an entire then and he wore blinkers, which was a mistake by the trainer, and he’s no longer got his manhood [horse, not handler!] or his blinkers, so not having them will be a big help.”
Glorious Forever is among the opposition for Stormy Antarctic and Walker knows him well having trained him for a couple of years before he moved to Frankie Lor’s in April this year.
The son of Archipenko has won three times in Hong Kong since the switch, but does Walker feel Stormy Antarctic has the better of him given he knows both horses so well?
“From what I know of him them home, yes,” Walker says.
“He’s obviously improved a lot for being here and watching him on TV he looks like he’s done well physically and improved with age.
“But do I think he’s a genuine Group One horse? My gut feeling would be no.”
Stormy Antarctic has to prove himself on that score, too. He’s zero from nine at the top level, but has consistently run well finishing placed on four of those occasions.
“He’s knocking on the door and he needs it to open sooner rather than later as he’s six next year,” Walker said.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this race, though.”
He’s got that strong Japanese challenge to overcome, but if they don’t perform for whatever reason it’s not beyond the realms that it could be 10th time lucky for the sole English raider.
Ed Dunlop extra
We’ve covered all we need to know about Ed Dunlop’s love affair with Hong Kong in this feature on his Vase contender this year, Red Verdon, and his previous Sha Tin winners Ouija Board, Snow Fairy and Red Cadeaux.
But here’s an accompanying video in which Ed gives me enormous sympathy for looking so knackered, while he also discusses Christmas shopping and gives advice on how to have a good time at Happy Valley without overdoing it.
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