US, European entries enrich nominations
The impressive Hong Kong International Races nominations are just nominations after all, and free at that, but within their lists lay some significant points for the future of the meeting.
The 389 nominations are not guaranteed to be the final entries, let alone the fields, as there is a supplementary opportunity to join in the races next month. And, within so many horses, of course it is easy to find some highlight names to bandy around whether they intend to be here or not when the numbers fine down to 10 per cent of that count. We aren't getting too excited about names like Rock Of Gibraltar or Marienbard or Sunline, or the many fly-a-kite entries made in the hope of sharp improvements between now and December.
The Jockey Club is the first to admit that entries are just entries, but still a vital step towards participation, and it is right to take some heart from the new angles to them. Last year, it was the bigger Japanese contingent which was pleasing to the Club. This time it is first-time entries from world-stage European and North American owners where the biggest advances have been seen, with Daniel Wildenstein, the Niarchos family and Khalid Abdullah joining the regular appearance of Godolphin and the, hopefully, rising interest from Ballydoyle.
The claim of 'turf world championships' will be a hollow one without these kinds of owners, who are omnipresent in major events elsewhere.
The depth in quality of the US nominations has risen, too, led by Beat Hollow and former Aidan O'Brien-trained Ballingarry - recent winners of World Series events in Chicago and Toronto respectively.
And there may be reason to think the Americans could be here in bigger numbers even though the entries from there are down from 87 to 65. The events of September 11 last year were thought to have influenced the sudden rise in American nominations, with owners leery about going to New York for the Breeders' Cup. Sha Tin was initially seen as a safer travel option, but in the final analysis only five of the 87 turned up.
There are nominations from Denmark and Sweden, and the Jockey Club is also delighted with the Italian entry, though it comprises just six horses. The Italians have been here before, but never with their acknowledged best like Falbrav and Rakti this year.
In addition, the superstar Italian jockey Mirco Demuro would be a likely partner for at least one of them and he is seen as an added attraction. The Club would like to have Demuro involved in the International Jockeys' Championship at Happy Valley on the Wednesday of its showcase week, but with maximum fields of 12 these days, numbers start to become a problem with too many invited riders.
Could the championship series races be expanded to fields of 14 for the occasion? The maximum field size was reduced for safety reasons given the wide margins in jockey ability seen frequently in standard domestic races. For the world's best, there might be consideration given to the bigger fields of old. What seems more likely, though, would be a restructuring of the series to include more of the night's races in the series and thus allow more riders to participate.