Durandal aims to strike it rich
Hong Kong's domination will come under threat from powerful Japanese raider
Recent history says the Europeans will struggle to compete in the $14 million Hong Kong Mile and the powerful Japanese galloper Durandal can strike a blow in revenge for Hong Kong's domination of the last two runnings.
Since Sunline nudged out Fairy King Prawn in 2000, the Hong Kong Mile has virtually become a two-nation contest between the Japanese and the local runners, with only Godolphin's China Visit in 2001 able to break the stranglehold and take even a placing for any other jurisdiction.
And the Kyoto Mile Championship, ideally placed as a lead-up three weeks before the Mile, has been key in assessing the race with the exception of 2003 when it had little representation.
Three years ago, a muddling tempo in Kyoto brought the undoing of Eishin Preston, who was a narrow second there but more than made amends when he trounced Electronic Unicorn at Sha Tin in a more truly contested race.
Then it was Hong Kong's turn in 2002 with the quinella going to Olympic Express and Electronic Unicorn, but the Japanese filled the third and fourth spots with Mile Championship winner Tokai Point and Kyoto seventh Admire Cozzene.
Again 12 months ago, the quinella went to Hong Kong with third and fourth to Japan, though Kyoto winner Durandal had stayed at home and that form did not get a serious test on international day.
No recent winner of the Kyoto Mile has been more impressive than Durandal this year, however. The race is usually a fiercely fought, tight finish with a number of horses within two or three lengths of the victor, but Durandal sat midfield this year, wide but well covered, went to the leaders swiftly at the 150 metres and dominated the finish with a minimum of coaxing.
Hong Kong punters saw Durandal just touch Cape Of Good Hope out of second in the Sprinters Stakes in October over 1,200m, but Durandal will be a different proposition altogether at 1,600m, where he travels sweetly in touch with the race rather than having to be stoked up from last.
The Japanese handicapper has declared him at least the equal of Eishin Preston, though that comparison is flawed. Eishin Preston was never the horse in Japan that he was at Sha Tin and for Durandal today that is probably the only question mark aside from sheer bad luck.
Can he bring his form from Kyoto, where he has three Group One wins, to Sha Tin?
The erratic habits of Aidan O'Brien-trained Antonius Pius cost him the Breeders' Cup Mile on the tight Lone Star Park circuit and in gate 14 he will get every opportunity to show just what a difficult beast he can be.
But any horse with his ability must be respected for that day which must come when the penny drops and he decides he wants to put it all together. He looks head and shoulders above the others of the European contingent.
Hong Kong is numerically strong in this year's edition but realistic winning hopes probably rest on the dominant local players - John Size and Douglas Whyte with Grand Zulu, and Tony Cruz and Felix Coetzee with their recent acquisition Perfect Partner.
The race owes Size a result to some extent after finishing second twice with Electronic Unicorn and while most agree that Grand Zulu will probably be seen at his best when he gets to 2,000m, he exceeded many expectations in Australia with a rapid rise to fame and is still fresh enough for a mile after only one race in eight months.
Perfect Partner's work this week confirmed his condition and his former trainer Caspar Fownes deserves credit for his timing of the gelding's preparation for this race. Coming off some ill-luck runs which have not seen him tested, he looks likely to produce his best.