Mark Popham is a regular visitor to the HKIR at Sha Tin and has his best bets for Sunday.
This is the Hong Kong International contest most likely to be won by a European-trained horse, with seven of the last 10 victors fitting the criteria.
Waldgeist, a regular runner in Group One races, is the highest-rated (122) of the 14 participants. The Andre Fabre-trained colt, who is ridden by French champion Pierre-Charles Boudot, won four consecutive races from May onwards, including the 12-furlong G1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud by a nose from Coronet, with Salouen (Sylvester Kirk/Oisin Murphy, 8/1) a length and a quarter back in third.
The French contender, a four-year-old Galileo colt, then ran well to finish a fairly close fourth to Enable in the G1 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on the first Sunday in October, but disappointed when over 13 lengths behind the same star filly in the G1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, Kentucky, on November 3.
Waldgeist seems to prefer a bit of cut in the ground, but despite rain falling on Friday in Hong Kong, conditions are unlikely to suit him. The Sha Tin course drains very quickly and only persistent rain on the day would turn the going anywhere near soft. Forecasts for Hong Kong’s weather on Sunday are varied, with one or two indicating plenty of rain, but most others suggest a few showers.
Sky Bet make Waldgeist the 7/2 favourite, but better value is offered by the progressive Frankel colt Mirage Dancer (Ryan Moore, 11/2), who has been brought forward steadily by his vastly experienced Newmarket trainer Sir Michael Stoute.
Owned and bred by Khalid Abdullah, the four-year-old is stepping up to G1 company for the first time, but his recent form has been good. He was touched off a short-head by Derby-seventh Young Rascal in the G3 Dubai Duty Free Legacy Cup over 11 furlongs at Newbury on soft ground on September 22. Connections reported that the ground was too soft and the distance inadequate, but more importantly the half-length third, Desert Encounter, boosted the form by capturing a Woodbine, Canada, G1 next time out.
On his previous start, Mirage Dancer was the comfortable winner of the G3 Bombay Sapphire Glorious Stakes over a mile and a half at the Qatar Goodwood Festival on good to firm going by three and a half lengths from five-year-old Red Verdon (Ed Dunlop/James Doyle, 25/1) who has been campaigned unsuccessfully in Australia since and is Hong-Kong owned.
Salouen may not relish fast ground too, while, among the others, Hong Kong hero Pakistan Star (Tony Cruz/William Buick, 12/1) is unreliable and Eagle Way (John Moore/Silvestre de Sousa, 7/1) and Exultant (Tony Cruz/Zac Purton, 12/1) do not appear good enough, despite finishing first and second respectively in a Hong Kong G2 last time out.
A saver on Latrobe (Joseph O’Brien/James McDonald, 8/1), the Irish Derby winner, is advised if he is passed fit to run. The three-year-old Camelot colt is better than four-year-old filly Lys Gracieux (Yoshito Yahagi/Joao Moreira, 12/2) who may prefer a left-handed track.
Top local trainer John Size runs four, though last year’s winner, Mr Stunning (Karim Teetan, 11/4), is now with second-season trainer Frankie Lor.
Nevertheless, he still saddles the market leader, Hot King Prawn (Joao Moreira, 2/1), who has won on nine of his last 10 starts, progressing from a low rating to 118, 3lb officially behind Mr Stunning, who has been third and second, giving weight, to the new Hong Kong sprinting sensation.
The sprinting division is pretty hot in Hong Kong and two others trained by Size are more value than the front couple in the betting with Sky Bet.
Both six-year-old D B Pin (Sam Clipperton, 8/1) and the year younger Beat The Clock (Ryan Moore, 13/2) have run just once this Hong Kong season, finishing ninth and third behind Hot King Prawn, who likes to make all.
DE P Pin had a tendon injury to overcome, while Beat The Clock has been very consistent throughout his career, never finishing outside the top three in any of his 16 races in Hong Kong.
Beat The Clock is drawn eight, while D B Pin is in stall two and Hot King Prawn drawn in 11 of the 12-strong field. Past stats suggest eight is a better pace than two which demands a very quick start. Sir Dancealot, trained by veteran Newmarket handler David Elsworth (Gerald Mosse, 20/1), has to cope with six furlongs around a turn and being better at seven furlongs.
Therefore, an each-way bet on Beat The Clock is advised.
Beauty Generation (John Moore/Zac Purton, 5/6 favourite with Sky Bet) made all to win this G1 mile race last year and is a very strong favourite to collect first prize again this year.
Graham Cunningham, now part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club media team, reflected on the horse’s continued progress in 2018 to a rating of 126: “Beauty Generation is the flagship horse of this year’s HKIR – he is drawn 12 (of the 14 runners) which is not ideal for a free-wheeling front-runner so he has to burn some fuel to get the lead if that is the way they want to ride him. The trainer is adamant that the horse is jumping out of his skin, though the jockey seems more pensive about the whole thing and Zac Purton is a very, very true judge of these things. The horse had to go to a hard place to break the track record last time and he hung out (went left in the straight to the other side of the course) after a shoeing issue. He is not the certainty that most people believe.”
The trick now is to find the right horse to oppose Beauty Generation as there are pluses and minuses about the best of the rest.
The obvious alternative is one of the three Japanese raiders, Persian Knight (Yasutoshi Ikee/Mirco Demuro, 8/1), already a G1 winner as he captured the Mile Championship at Kyoto in November last year. The four-year-old Harbinger colt, almost black, has looked extremely well in the mornings and put in a glorious piece of work earlier this week. He ran well in this year’s Mile Championship last month, unluckily just failing to get up by a head. The negative is that he is drawn widest of all in 14. However, his trainer does not seem too bothered and remarked it was better than being on the inside in stall one or two. There also has been a stall 14 success in 2010.
Four-year-old Frankel colt, Mozu Ascot (Yoshito Yahagi/Christophe Lemaire, 6/1, drawn two), is at shorter odds and disappointed in the Mile Championship, though he holds Persian Knight on an earlier piece of form.
Beat The Bank (Andrew Balding/Oisin Murphy, 16/1, drawn five) and One Master (William Haggas/Ryan Moore, 12/1, drawn eight) are the two British raiders. The former’s form is suspect, while the latter filly, although on the upgrade, might prefer less fast ground.
The Godolphin hope, French challenger Inns Of Court (Andre Fabre/Mickael Barzalona, 12/1, drawn three) is closely tied in on form with One Master, but is a horse who has run well over six, seven and eight furlongs. A strongly-run mile might test his stamina.
The most valuable of the HKIR races, this is also the least competitive on paper, with just nine runners.
Two of the three Japanese hopefuls, Deep Impact colt Sungrazer (Hidekazu Asami/Joao Moreira, 3/2) and Harbinger filly Deidre (Mitsuru Hashida/Christophe Lemaire, 9/4), lead the market with Sky Bet.
Both have looked good and trained happily this week at Sha Tin Racecourse, as well as showing excellent recent form. If Persian Knight and Mozu Ascot run well in the earlier Longines Hong Kong Mile that will be a pointer Sungrazer’s chance, while the connections of Deidre are very positive of a top performance and the filly certainly has a presence about her.
A line through Benbatl suggests that British challenger Stormy Antarctic (Ed Walker/James Doyle, 16/1) has a similar chance to Deidre, but I suspect the Japanese runner has more scope for improvement. Stormy Antarctic has become more consistent since being gelded in August last year, but he still pulls hard in training and disappointed on his only previous Hong Kong start.
Full-brothers Time Warp (Tony Cruz/Zac Purton, 11/2), who made all last year, and Glorious Forever (Frankie Lor/Silvestre de Sousa, 10/1) present a puzzle.
Graham Cunningham reported: “Time Warp is one of the most mercurial G1 horses I have ever seen in any country. He lines up, trying to win this race for a second year running, with a record on his last five runs of last, last, last, first and last. That tells a tale of horse who need a certain thing – his own way. He is devastating if he gets a soft lead, but opponents are surely wise to that now. He cannot be hit behind the saddle because the moment he is the tail goes around and he drops the lot. His younger brother Glorious Forever, who used to be trained by Ed Walker, was thriving until last time when he went into a destructive pace duel with his big brother and they both paid the penalty. The pace of the race is key – the last 400 metres but the first 400 metres will shape everything.”
Northern Superstar (Tony Millard/Karis Teetan, 40/1) may be aptly named. The five-year-old horse made his name in South Africa with to G1 victories, both over 10 furlongs on fast ground last year. He had nearly 12 months off, because of a very long quarantine and a slight setback, before having his first Hong Kong appearance on November 25 in a mile handicap at Sha Tin, finishing sixth of the 12 runners.
Hong Kong-based trainer Tony Millard has had one winner at the HKIR – Ambitious Dragon – in the 2012 Hong Kong Mile.
It is a big step up to the G1 Longines Hong Kong Cup, but South African sources are saying Northern Superstar is a proper horse, with tons of ability, and it might be worth having an each-way flutter at a big price in what looks a tricky race to solve.