Tough task for favourites
THE National Panasonic Cup has a history of electrifying finishes: only twice in 11 years has the winner cleared away from the pack.
And it took the likes of Quicken Away, who has been voted Horse of the Year twice in his explosive career, and Wonderful World, still a powerful Class One contender, to show the field a clean pair of heels.
In every other case, the Cup has consistently seen the tightest of finishes, the photo being called to find the winner by a head or even a short head.
Last year's National Panasonic, run for the first time over 1900 metres, went to seasoned campaigner Sterling Town, owned by Michael Shum Kai-kit and Lim Kiam-leng, at the juicy odds of 10-1.
Although not fulfilling his promise of success throughout last season, he came out this season looking a force to be reckoned with.
And if his own determination and strength were not enough to take the National Panasonic purse of some $715,000 and the silverware, he had triple champion jockey Basil Marcus on his back.
Marcus produced a gem of a ride to edge out his arch-rival and the ultimate premiership winner Tony Cruz on Nervous Witness, also an outsider at 16-1.
Sterling Town goes into the Cup's record book as the winner by a neck.
Marcus found the perfect rails passage for his charge, as stablemate Wonderful World, winner of the race in 1991 and runner-up in 1993, made the running from 7-2 favourite Smiling.
From the top of the straight, however, Sterling Town always looked to have them covered, even with Cruz piling on the pressure by extricating Nervous Witness from a pocket on the rail.
'I must say, we had the run of the race,' beamed Marcus as he was met in the enclosure by trainer Ivan Allen.
Wonderful World ran into a place for the third occasion, earning his connections some $140,000 in stake money. Smiling was fourth.
The National Panasonic Cup, sponsorship by the Shun Hing Group, had produced another thrilling finish in its 11th running.
It is not a race for favourites, having been won on only three occasions by the punters' choice.
The great tradition of the National Panasonic Cup began on March 23, 1985, with a classy field of Class 1 and 2 horses headed by the speedy Best Fortune, ridden by legend Lester Piggott, who only months ago decided to hang up his whip.
As the starter called the full field of 14 in for the race, at that time a 1,600-metre journey, Best Fortune was quoted as a sure thing at 13-8.
Next pick at the tote window at 8-1 was Monetarist, with international champion Gary Moore aboard.
But it was Prairie Dunes, the 12-1 shot ridden by David Brosnan, who greeted the judge, a half length ahead of 14-1 Camelot with Best Fortune managing third.
After pulling up only ninth in that race, Monetarist came out the following year in an entirely different frame of mind under Gary Palmer.
At 12-1, he just hung on to score by a short head from Double-Decker, the 2-1 favourite assigned to Tony Cruz for the 1,400-metre Cup.
Piggott was back, but his effort this time was fruitless as Camelot faded badly to run a distant last.
The Cup then moved from spring to autumn and shortened further to 1,200 metres.
The change apparently favoured the shorter-priced brigade, with 9-2 hot-pot Packstar taking the $250,000 purse. Packstar was ridden by Tony P. H. Chan.
The 1987 Cup went to the Bruce Compton-ridden Distinction, the 16-1 runner trained by John Moore for Mr and Mrs Hui Sai-fun.
No one expected Distinction to grab the prize, increased to $320,000, as he had been travelling a remote second last to the home bend. He was still 10th at the 400 metres but motored home, gobbling up the ground between him and Morning Patrol, whose jockey Peter Leyshan dropped his whip at the 200 metres.
But the curse of the place-getters was to strike again: previous winner Packstar was disappointing in running last and Distinction was to run second last in his next appearance in the National Panasonic, the 1988 1,200 metre race won by Pride Of Hong Kong - another outsider at 25-1.
Then it was the turn of the Great Grey, Quicken Away, one of local racing's most famous champions. It was altogether a typical Quicken Away race over 1,400 metres. He carried the punters' cash as 4-1 favourite and K. L. Tsui, he dropped out to the tail, and brought the crowd to its feet as he ran on resolutely down the middle of the track to take the lead close home.
He scored by 11/4 lengths from Super Bingo with Broad Shoulder third.
In 1990 the race was lengthened 400 metres to 1,800, suiting Galway, the 6-1 runner trained by Brian Kan Ping-chee who held on gamely to snap up the $600,000 prize with a short head win over Busy Win and Stingray.
The following year, and the $1 million first prize money, was Wonderful World's.
John Marshall took the 7-4 favourite to victory by the biggest margin in the Cup's history - an enormous 11 lengths from Asawa Dee and Busy Win.
Although racing sensation was nothing new to the National Panasonic, next was an extraordinary sequence.
Mr and Mrs Hui, who had led in Distinction five years earlier, returned to the winning enclosure with their new wonder horse, Motivation.
The John Moore trained stayer not only took the 1992 race and its $1.25 million prize at 7-1, but backed up the following year to score again at 11-2.
Darren Beadman rode him in 1992 and John Marshall the following year.
And as if the National Panasonic was something very special to him, Wonderful World was still going around.
He trailed Motivation home ninth with Basil Marcus up in 1992, but made a better race of it in their next clash, forcing Motivation into one of the best finishes to overtake him in the shadow of the post.
The mighty Quicken Away and Sterling Town were nominated for the 1993 Cup, but did not start.
Sterling Town's destiny, however, awaited him just 12 months later.