Armee is on song for glory
Aussie star has the edge over rivals to lift the QEII Cup
Grand Armee, Australia's best racehorse middle-distance runner of the past decade, should simply pack too many guns despite being confronted by a star-studded field in today's $14 million Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin.
Grand Armee should also provide another ringing endorsement for the growing belief that southern hemisphere form is underrated by the global handicappers, following on from Elvstroem's effortless win in the Group One Dubai Duty Free over 1,777 metres at Nad Al Sheba last month.
A number of Australian ratings agencies, including the respected on-line source Ozeform, have Grand Armee consistently rating about three pounds better than Elvstroem's best ratings of 123 (Dubai) and 124 (Caulfield Cup).
Grand Armee's form, especially at 2,000m, is simply world class. On March 5, he won the Group One Ranvet Stakes at Rosehill by 51/2 lengths, with a rating that equated to an international 126.
And at his last start in Randwick's version of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, he was physically held down to a mere 21/2 lengths, rating 125 but with jockey Danny Beasley leaving plenty of unburned petrol in the tank.
On Victoria Derby day last year, Grand Armee (Damien Oliver) won the Group One Mackinnon Stakes by four lengths, rating 127, while the previous autumn he won his first QEII by six lengths, from Horse of the Year Lonhro, rating a whopping 129.
To give those figures some Hong Kong perspective, 129 is accepted as the highest-rating performance in modern-day local racing, turned in by world champion Falbrav in taking the Hong Kong Cup in December 2003.
The highest-rating QEII stands to the credit of the wonderful French raider Jim And Tonic, who registered a new course record time of 02:00.01 seconds in winning the 1999 renewal of the race by 21/2 lengths from Indigenous, with a rating of 127.
So if Grand Armee runs to his Australian figures, he would not only win the QEII but is theoretically good enough to win any edition of the race since it was first decided a decade ago.
Grand Armee has drawn barrier 13 and normally, that would be a horror draw. But on this occasion, it gives Grand Armee the opportunity to slide across the face of the field in company with Germany's Epalo (Andrasch Starke), who is posted out in 14.
When Epalo won the Singapore Airlines International Cup almost 12 months ago, he led throughout from barrier 16 and was never in danger. He had a quality field spread out over 25 lengths at the half way mark, with most of his opponents always struggling against the breakneck tempo.
But Epalo never stopped. He maintained a relentless gallop to post a five length margin on multiple South African Group One winner Surveyor, with Hong Kong Mile runner-up Bowman's Crossing third (beaten 53/4 lengths) and subsequent Hong Kong Cup Trial hero Ain't Here fourth, but 81/4 lengths from the winner.
If Epalo was to be beaten that day, it would have been by a horse that had the tactical speed to stay in touch, like Grand Armee, and not by one that settled a long way back.
The danger to Grand Armee should come from the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby hero Vengeance of Rain (Anthony Delpech), a horse with the pedigree to be a champion and an improving form line that's pointing to just such a result. Vengeance of Rain has the 'golden quality' of the thoroughbred, acceleration. In fact, he has lashings of it.
In the Derby, coming off a slow pace, he bounded past his rivals in a blinding change of gears to which they had no answer.
It had been a similar story in his lead-up races, too. Just remember his multi-purpose pedigree, by champion sire Zabeel (sire of 32 individual Group One winners) from a Group One winning juvenile filly named Danelagh, a daughter of the late, great Danehill.
Vengeance of Rain is going to get a lovely run, forward of midfield, from barrier three. This is the first time in recent starts that he's drawn a decent barrier and it will allow Delpech a little more tactical latitude in the early stages.
Australia's other representative, Elvstroem, will run another brave race - 'Elvis' never disappoints. Jockey Nash Rawiller came up with a 12-out-of-10 ride to steal the Dubai Duty Free last start but, on this occasion, he'll need to be handled less aggressively.
However, this year's QEII is such a strong race that even Elvstroem's Group One best may not be quite good enough.
Murray bell's selection
VENGEANCE OF RAIN