Our man Graham Cunningham wraps up his Postcard from Hong Kong with reflections on Sunday's LONGINES HKIR at Sha Tin.
Just after 11am on a sunny Sunday LONGINES HKIR day in Hong Kong and the MTR train that runs from Admiralty to the back of the vast Sha Tin grandstand is rammed.
Local punters scanning broadsheet racing guides and tapping their mobiles urgently to scan the odds outnumber the British and Aussie contingent ten-fold but one visiting Gweilo is working his phone to scan the results from the corresponding day in 2003.
From a European viewpoint, they make for fascinating reading. Tiny French filly Vallee Enchantee got the better of Andre Fabre’s Polish Summer and Clive Brittain’s Warrsan in the Vase, while old British favourites like Acclamation, The Trader, The Tatling and Deportivo were among those left trailing as the mighty local hero Silent Witness won the Sprint.
Firebreak (Frankie) and Passing Glance (Martin Dwyer) came up short as the Silent Witness team of Tony Cruz and Felix Coetzee completed a famous double in the Mile with Lucky Owners but Luca Cumani’s ace globetrotter and Falbrav and Michael Jarvis’s fiery star Rakti put a British ribbon round the day’s feature by dominating the finish to a vintage Hong Kong Cup.
Britain is a different place in so many ways nowadays. True, good horses have a wider range of options but the bottom line is that the only British runner in four G1 races worth almost £12m is the peripatetic Princess from John Quinn’s Highfield Stables in North Yorkshire.
The sight of Quinn bouncing around Sha Tin during morning trackwork has been one of several abiding images of the week so far.
Aidan O’Brien has run top reporter Nick Luck close for media engagements completed, while Englishwoman abroad Rachel King made an instant Happy Valley impact on Wednesday and Vincent Ho confirmed himself a genuine global ace by thwarting King, Zac Purton and World’s Best Jockey Ryan Moore to land the International Jockeys’ Championship.
But two and a half hours in the middle of Sunday afternoon define HKIR week and this year’s big ones provided three memorable moments and another that was simply unforgettable.
Andre Fabre still knows exactly what it takes to win in HK at the age of 78 and, having landed the Vase with Borgia and Flintshire many moons ago, the French maestro delivered the powerful Junko in prime condition to swoop from last to first in the Vase under Maxime Guyon.
The world’s best turf 1200m horse Lucky Sweynesse did what Lucky Sweynesse does – ambling round the paddock without a care in the world before swamping his rivals late in the Sprint under Purton – and Jason Hart summed up Highfield Princess’s honest sixth by saying “they’re a different kettle of fish here.”
They certainly are.
And the most famous fish in the kettle provided a moment to rival anything in HK racing history as Golden Sixty produced a devastating performance to make a high-class field look like so many selling platers in the Mile.
Eight-year-olds aren’t meant to win international G1 races, especially when they are drawn 14 of 14 round a turning mile after being off the track for more than seven months.
But keen Formula 1 fan Ho insisted there had been no sign of “turbo lag” in the mornings and Francis Lui’s gelding showed that age is doing nothing to dull his astonishing power, cruising along on the outside and uncoiling yet another combustible closing split (22.21s) to leave the Derby winner Voyage Bubble and high-class Japanese filly Namur trailing in his wake.
It's hard to describe the bond HK racing fans have with their three-time Horse of the Year but the fact that he entered their consciousness just as Covid was taking a grip in March of 2020 and continues to excel as the city gets back on its feet almost four years later should never be underestimated.
Add in the fact that he has been guided on every one of his 30 starts (no, that isn’t a mis-print) by a young man who exemplifies the understated passion that drives so much of what is good about Hong Kong and you have an act that is nigh-on impossible to follow.
Romantic Warrior must have felt like he was coming on stage after a peak-form Rolling Stones in his bid to record back-to-back Cup wins but he followed up his historic Cox Plate success with another tremendously gutsy success, refusing to yield as Ryan Moore and Luxembourg came charging.
“One of the toughest horses I’ve ever ridden,” was James McDonald’s instant reaction. And Hong Kong is becoming an increasingly tough place for British and Irish challengers to win.
But that shouldn’t mean they should stop driving. The pioneering spirit of Cumani, Brittain, Sir Michael Stoute, Bolger, Ed Dunlop and others hasn’t been taken on by many of their successors at the top of the British training table but maybe it will return in years to come.
You won’t be surprised to hear this correspondent can strongly recommend work and play in this remarkable city.
And so, in the best traditions of Postcard signoffs: “The weather is lovely and the food is wonderful. Wish You Were Here. X"
Followers of Golden Sixty’s ascent through handicap foothills to the peak of global renown will be very familiar with the closing lines used by the men who have called him home.
Aussie caller Brett Davis spotted the budding star’s potential very early, saying “he’s got a decent engine, this fellow” as Golden Sixty zipped home in 22.34s to make a winning debut in the spring of 2019.
Kiwi counterpart Tom Wood summed up a growing belief that something special was afoot with “ten starts, nine wins, he’s a cracker” as the elegant brown gelding pounced in the Hong Kong Classic Cup in February 2020.
And Mark McNamara has spent the better part of four years delivering memorable payoff lines from the top of the Sha Tin grandstand during Golden Sixty’s march to greatness.
“He’s running out of time, he’s coming now, Golden Sixty drives, he won it!” was the McNamara payoff as the rampant youngster blazed home in a scarcely believable 21.83s to nail Playa Del Puente in the final strides of a dramatic BMW Hong Kong Derby in 2020.
“This equine wrecking ball” and “Fortress Golden Sixty” followed as international stars were dismissed on HKIR day in 2020 and 2021, while the Cronulla Sharks fan summed up an epic defeat of Romantic Warrior and California Spangle in this year’s Stewards’ Cup with a simple but perfect “Hong Kong’s horse of a generation wins the race of a decade.”
McNamara, who has called around 1500 finishes from his box on the eighth floor of the Sha Tin grandstand, says “when Golden Sixty is at his dominant best his speed is just electric and, on a long list, his Derby is probably the best example of that.”
Wood says “there is just a different visual about the way this horse charges and he makes you think on your feet as a caller as you wait for the surge.
“Again, the Derby is probably the most dramatic example but I’ll always remember the Classic Mile and Classic Cup on a personal level and Sunday could be very special,” he added.
“It was eerie calling races with no-one around during Covid but that Sha Tin roar could be back in force this weekend and you certainly feel it from up in the caller’s box.”
Davis is back calling in his native Adelaide now but recalls the three-time Horse of the Year’s early days vividly. “Very few horses produce an effortless performance like he did on debut and only true champions keep rising to the occasion once they are in against the big boys,” he says.
“It was a privilege to be involved in a small part of his early career and he deserves to sign off with something spectacular.”
Few would argue with Davis on the latter point but Golden Sixty’s legion of followers can look away now because the caller’s convention are united in concern about his chances of winning a third LONGINES Hong Kong Mile on Sunday.
Davis feels that “coming back from a long break from stall 14 as an ageing galloper in a major G1 race is a monumental task for any horse” and nominates the up and-coming Beauty Eternal and high-class Japanese raider Soul Rush as viable alternatives.
That phrase “monumental task” comes up again as Wood says “I want him to win but I’ve gone for the Japanese filly Namur.”
He adds: “Her win last time in the Mile Championship at Kyoto was something special and she would have been even more impressive had she not been knocked sideways at the 150m mark.”
And McNamara, who will be calling Sunday’s race from on high at 8am UK time, completes the trepidatious Trifecta of Sixty doubters.
“I’d absolutely love to see him come roaring back with another huge win and, drawn 10 or lower, I’m with him every day of the week.,” he says. “But from gate 14 I just have doubts and, at a much bigger price, I like this year’s Derby winner Voyage Bubble.
“Ignore his first run this season - as nothing went right – but he just seems to find a way in these big races and this could be a case of a Hong Kong winner but not the one most people are hoping for,”
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges always hosts a round table media session on the Friday morning of HKIR week and the HKJC supremo covered several areas – notably the whip and World Pool plans - included in Tuesday’s Postcard From HK (see below).
One new topic did come up, namely whether Hong Kong is open to the idea of adding a female to the full-time riding roster given that Hollie Doyle, Rachel King and Aussie star Jamie Kah have all excelled at Happy Valley and Sha Tin in recent times.
Kah is awaiting the verdict results of an inquiry into a video in which she was seen with a powdery white substance, while King is heading back to Oz after making a successful Valley debut on IJC night.
But Engelbrecht-Bresges gave Doyle a significant vote of confidence. “You have to be at a certain elite level to come here and you have to want come here, too,” he said. “But we would give Hollie a job tomorrow.”
Most media members would agree that Ryan Moore is a solid 4/11 shot when it comes to most challenging rider to interview.
But when the man who will be crowned LONGINES World’s Best Jockey for a fourth time on Friday night has already done a raft of media stuff this week - and he’s also been living on meagre rations to ride light on Warm Heart in Sunday’s Vase - the task gets tougher still.
So good luck to whoever gets the task at the Hong Kong Convention Centre tonight. I was flattered to be offered the gig, which takes place in front of the massed ranks of local media as the glitzy bash begins to wind down.
However, even without the fact that my voice is croaky at present, this was one occasion when I was happy enough to say “thanks, but no thanks."
What on earth did we do before glitzy sporting draw ceremonies became a thing?
British racing used to rub along well enough when the stalls were allocated by some wheezing old gadget in the privacy of the office at Weatherbys - but something changed.
Perhaps it was football upping the stakes by engaging a bemused Donald Trump to help Saint and Greavsie with the quarter-final draw for the Rumbelows Cup back in 1992.
Or maybe it was a well refreshed Rod Stewart adding stardust and considerable gusto to the draw for the fifth round of the Scottish Cup in 2017.
Either way, no racing festival is complete without a massive barrier draw festooned with more moving parts than the average Cameron Mackintosh production nowadays – and today’s ceremony for Sunday’s LONGINES HKIR had all the necessary ingredients.
Recently crowned reporter of the year Nick Luck and popular local MC Heidi Chu were right on brand with matching suits and elegant timepieces.
Longines VPM Bernardo Tribolet cut a debonair figure with the sort of bushy grey beard that would make him a canny Santa if the watch game ever heads south.
With a runner in all four G1s, Aidan O’Brien spent more time on stage than Bruce Springsteen, albeit with a little less fist clenching and considerably more use of “incredible” and “unbelievable."
But the 80-minute extravaganza - complete with multiple group photos and a subtle aside when Lucky responded to his partner’s lengthy Cantonese address with “absolutely spot-on, Heidi,” - did draw one notable gasp from the crowd in the spectacular Sha Tin paddock.
It came when Golden Sixty’s owner Stanley Chan stepped up to the plate and drew gate 14 of 14 for his three-time Horse of the Year in Sunday’s Mile.
Golden Sixty has never faced a full field of 13 rivals since his Derby success in March 2020 and, for all that he settles off the pace wherever he is drawn, the widest gate of his career does present an added layer of complexity for Wednesday’s IJC hero Vincent Ho.
Meanwhile, Thursday morning threw up a few more tantalising questions.
Highfield Princess didn’t come out for her intended AW spin and one of her owner’s associates was heard saying “it is what it is” after John Quinn drew nine for her.
Confidence behind Warm Heart and Luxembourg for the Vase and Cup grew after Aidan replied “I think there is no doubt” when asked whether this was his strongest ever HKIR team.
The withdrawal of high-class globetrotter Shahryar due to “a potential health issue” left the Japanese team short of one main Vase contender.
But Joao Moreira seems very confident of a bold run from fellow Japanese raider Lebensstil and the absence of Shahryar gives the Vase the look of a race in which the three-year-olds are set to have a very persuasive say.
The prime player in racing politics is upbeat ahead of this year’s LONGINES Hong Kong International Races. Free to roam again after the pandemic years, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges feels Hong Kong is back on the up and, with a record number of international stars in town, the HKJC supremo tackles a range of issues including Sunday’s key questions, the whip debate, World Pool plans and Harry Kane’s impact on Bayern Munich.
“The number one passion that Hong Kong people have is horse racing. They were deprived of going racing for so long but we are now fully back in business and, with the quality of horses and jockeys this year, I am convinced we are in for a fantastic week.”
“It can take a long time in racing to make things work – I promoted this idea for the first time at the Asian Racing Conference back in 2007 – but when you combine the best racing from all over the world with deep liquidity you have something very special.
"Technology is the key to further expansion. The new protocol we are working on will enable us to introduce new wagering opportunities involving exotic bets and I see no reason why UK bookmakers could not become agents for pool bets like the Quartet and Six-Up.
"In my experience racing takes three years to adapt. First, you have the teaser, then people see the value, and in year three people often embrace the concept. The sport is still too fragmented but, now I am free to travel and build trust with key decision makers face to face again, I believe we are entering a very exciting phase in World Pool development.”
“We now have the permission of the HK government to capture twelve races in a day, so that gives us a unique opportunity to bring the best races not only from one place but from two or three spaces to create a unique, holistic international programme.
Fixture lists will play a key role and discussions are ongoing with key industry figures but I can envisage a hybrid model in which we could stage races from three meetings in one afternoon – let’s say from York or Newmarket along with Longchamp or Baden-Baden – so that we offer the best races from around the world along with the best value wagering opportunities.”
“We have three super horses in the Sprint, Mile and Cup but Lucky Sweynesse, Golden Sixty and Romantic Warrior do face significant opposition.
"It is an experiment to run Golden Sixty first time out in a G1 race against a full field. He can do it but it is not easy, while Romantic Warrior faces probably his most difficult challenge. His Cox Plate win showed that Hong Kong horses can excel on the global stage but there are fantastic Japanese horses against him and Aidan O’Brien has brought a horse of top-class international quality in Luxembourg.”
“I am very confident in our position because I look at the customers. You can punish a jockey, you can even punish an owner, but you must be mindful of how the customer feels and, whether it is a big race or a small race, there would be a massive issue by interfering with the result on raceday.
"You can do this after you have finalised the result, perhaps the next day or later, if you want to change behaviour, but we have done huge research into this subject and our customers, who put so much time into studying to try and solve the puzzle, do not appreciate it if somebody interferes with that.”
“I once faced similar situations in Germany with multiple racecourses, stakeholders, owners, trainers and even state government, but with the help of colleagues I was able to develop a common vision. You need to understand all the nuances and local issues of the sport to bring people together. In Germany it helped that I was an owner and a breeder and chairman of a racecourse but getting people to buy into the common vision is always the key factor.”
“I played with Borussia Monchengladbach – and so we always had a little bit of stress with Bayern – but I look at quality and Harry is not only a great striker but also a terrific football player. Robert Lewandoski was good for Bayern but Kane is a different level. He plays more for the team and his intelligence would make him a great addition to any league in the world.”
Aidan O’Brien’s trips to Hong Kong tend to be of the hit-and-run variety but the world’s most successful handler is in town early this week and he arrived at Sha Tin bright and early on Wednesday morning after his BA flight from Heathrow was delayed from Monday night until late on Tuesday morning.
Planning an afternoon nap before heading to experience Happy Valley for the first time on IJC night, O’Brien ran the rule over his four HKIR hopes – including the triple G1 winner Luxembourg – and confirmed that Ryan Moore is trying to ride at his lowest weight in a long while to partner the Yorkshire Oaks winner Warm Heart in the Vase.
“Luxembourg had a foot bruise after his second in the Irish Champion Stakes but this was a race we had our eye on with him,” he said.
“Ryan’s first rides back after Japan (and an injury break) are this evening but he seemed in good form,” he said. “He always gets on very well with Warm Heart and I think he’s looking forward to it."
Twelve international riding stars gathered on the site of a former Police HQ complete with cell block in the bustling heart of Hong Kong. You can write your own punchline about HK stewards cracking down even harder than usual but the spectacular £370m renovation at Tai Kwun on Hollywood Road proved an apt location to set the stage for Wednesday’s LONGINES International Jockeys’ Championship.
Former IJC winners were out in force – headed by Ryan Moore, Zac Purton, Karis Teetan and Tom Marquand – but newcomer Rachel King captured plenty of attention on what will be her first IJC appearance.
The 33-year-old has gone from strength to strength since swapping England for Australia in 2014 and is fresh from G1 success aboard top sprinter Ozzmosis in the Coolmore Stud Stakes at Flemington last month.
“To be competing against this class of jockey is very special,” she said
“I was lucky enough to walk the Happy Valley track today and I’ll be bugging the other guys and watching as many replays as I can before tomorrow night.”
Purton feels that riding at the Valley every week gives him a slight advantage over the visitors but took most of the audience by surprise when asked about his main danger.
“His name isn’t easy to pronounce but I think the Kazakh King (Bauyrzhan Murzabayev) might be the one,” he said. “
“My rides are just ok but I think he has a good book to look forward to,” added the HK champion. And HK File followers will be hoping Zac is right as Murzabayev starts the night with a live chance aboard the well-handicapped Gorgeous Vitality.
Ace reporter Nick Luck arrives soon to assume his anointed place as lead HKIR media MC but, in the meantime, yours truly has been asked to interview the winner (or winners) of the world’s most famous jockey challenge on Wednesday night.
It’s a long while since Lucky endured pre-race nerves but the rest of us are entitled to a few and I woke up at dawn on Tuesday wondering…..
Does the Kazakh King speak any English?
Why is English rider Rachel King representing Australia?
And if interviewing Ryan Moore is tricky under normal circumstances, what will it be like if he’s on convict rations in a bid to get down to 8st 5lb to ride Warm Heart in Sunday’s Vase?
Each to their own but I’ve never been a great fan of trackwork reports that seldom stretch beyond the realms of “he/she seems to have settled in well and it’s so far, so good.”
Still, you need to keep busy before breakfast so here are a few scribbled notes from my morning manoeuvres:
Aidan O’Brien’s Cup contender Luxembourg carried his head at its usual jaunty angle as he tracked a Ballydoyle lead horse ahead of stablemates Cairo, Aesop’s Fables and Warm Heart.
French star Horizon Dore looked almost as well as his bushy-bearded work rider, while fellow Frenchie Junko galloped down the AW straight showing a familiar powerful, round action that will face a searching examination once it encounters Sha Tin’s fast turf.
West Wind Blows showed plenty of zest as the sole horse to undergo a turf spin but the head turner of the morning was probably Japanese raider Shahryar, who looked full of life after his good third in Auguste Rodin’s BC Turf and now heads for a clash with Junko, West Wind Blows and Warm Heart in a wide-open Vase.
I spent long enough in HK racing to stop being shocked at some of the mind-blowing numbers involved but the front page of Monday’s South China Morning Post took me aback.
A story based on events at the COP28 summit in Dubai revealed that the HKJC’s new Institute of Philanthropy has signed a statement of collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation to help protect some of the world’s most vulnerable people from the impacts of climate change.
“We aim to build nothing less than a global network of human and technology resources dedicated to strengthening global health resilience to climate change,” said HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.
And the Club’s initial seed funding for the project? I had to check it wasn’t a misprint but, no, it amounts to a little over £500m – or enough to fund every single race run in Britain from now until this time in 2026. It really is a different world.
A sleepy-looking Nicholas Anelka is behind me in the airport passport queue, while Jarvis Cocker and Pulp are headlining the Clockenflap Festival on the Central Harbourfront.
Time will tell if the brooding French flyer and the sardonic Sheffield sage find time for a trip to the races this week but a host of other global stars are in town and the local heroes could have more to do than the markets suggest in four LONGINES HKIR contests worth almost £12m this Sunday.
A thirst for knowledge is essential to find an edge at any international racing festival and trying to see something a little beyond the obvious can pay dividends.
The Vase (2400m) looks marked for export as usual, especially with HK’s top stayer Russian Emperor on the sidelines, and Euro raiders Warm Heart and Junko will have to bring their A game to thwart a powerful Japanese contingent.
But there are two ways of looking at the other three feature events and, although fans of Lucky Sweynesse, Golden Sixty and Romantic Warrior won’t need much encouragement to stay loyal, the three kings of HK racing aren’t bankers to come bearing gifts this Christmas.
Lucky Sweynesse went into the summer as the world’s highest rated turf sprinter but things haven’t gone as smoothly as expected this season, with two defeats at 1.2 and 1.4 followed by a G2 success at 1.3 under Zac Purton which was workmanlike at best.
Golden Sixty’s place in HK racing history is already guaranteed and Francis Lui and Vincent Ho seem adamant that their three-time Horse of the Year will be ready to peak as he bids to win a third Mile on Sunday.
Most fans and media members seem happy to go along with the view that the Golden boy will be as good as ever but backing eight-year-olds to win international G1 races when they haven’t raced in over seven months hardly seems a gilt-edged plan.
And, for all that last month’s Cox Plate hero Romantic Warrior ran clean away with last year’s Cup, history shows that Hong Kong horses who go abroad to gain G1 success can struggle to hit the same heights in their next race on home soil.
Much can happen at home and abroad between now and Sunday and, if the weather relents, there will be plenty of jumpers going off at skinny odds in Britain and Ireland.
Whether those talented twig hoppers will have much in the way of meaningful opposition is up for debate but I’m happy to take the view that a few of the HKIR jollies will have plenty to beat – and experience suggests there will be some dangerous horses going around at very attractive odds this weekend.
Technology can solve most problems these days and the desire to make Wednesday’s International Jockeys’ Championship as competitive as possible has given birth to a successful HKJC algorithm designed to give all twelve riders an even spread of chances across the four races.
But technology mirrors real life in that some players emerge from calculations looking more equal than others and Caspar Fownes is confident that he can live up to his ‘King of the Valley’ label via one or more of several solid midweek chances.
Last year’s joint-IJC winner Tom Marquand rides handy sprinter Galvanic for Fownes in leg one, while Ryan Moore and Marquand partner the in-form M Unicorn and Killer Instinct in leg two.
James McDonald and Vincent Ho join the Fownes force aboard Flagship Warrior and Storm Legend in leg three while Mickael Barzalona and Zac Purton (who hasn’t ridden for Caspar in over two years) add their weight to the four-time champion trainer’s challenge on Sugar Sugar and Kaholo Angel in the deciding leg.
“I start planning for this night a few weeks in advance and I’m very happy with the horses we’re running and the riders we’ve got,” said Fownes. “I do think the guys who ride the Valley week in, week out have a slight edge but we have a few champions with a feel of the track on our side this year and I think M Unicorn would be my best chance.”
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