Race gallops onto the international stage
From humble beginnings more than three decades ago, the prestigious event attracts the world's best horses, writes Alan Aitken
The Queen ElizabethII Cup has a proud history, almost as long as that of Hong Kong's professional racing itself. But the race, with its present sponsor Audemars Piguet, has only been around for just over a decade.
It was long overshadowed by the international meeting in December, and the AP QEII Cup did take its time to throw off that 'little brother' perception.
However, when the race is run and won for the 34th time tomorrow at Sha Tin, the winner can justifiably claim to be one of the world's elite - a horse fully capable of matching it on the track in any company, anywhere.
It was not always so.
The race, named by the then Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club to honour the sitting British monarch, began as a humble HK$50,000 domestic trophy event over 1,575 metres at Happy Valley in 1975, four years after racing turned professional.
It was won by Nazakat, who would return three years later to become the first dual winner of the race when the prize money had dropped to HK$45,000.
Moving to a fresh home at the new Sha Tin racecourse in 1979, the QEII Cup still had little more than the royal title to set it aside from a host of regular cups and trophies.
But it started to gain momentum with a major injection of prize money in 1987 which began to make it one of the season's priorities for the best gallopers.
The Jockey Club raised the stakes from HK$180,000 to HK$500,000 when former Derby winner Forever Gold won the race that year. But perhaps the turning point came when it topped
HK$1 million in stakes for the first time in 1992.
That year, the race was won by River Verdon, at that time considered the best racehorse produced by Hong Kong, and adding the name of a legend to the list of winners played its part when the Jockey Club was looking to broaden the scope of another event following the success of the relatively young Hong Kong International Races.
A sharp boost to prize money followed in 1995 as the race was opened to the world and Dubai-trained Red Bishop beat runners from Hong Kong and four other nations to take home the HK$2.32million first prize that was more than HK$600,000 higher than the total stakes for the 1994 running.
The race was now finding a place in the consciousness of the racing world, but it had yet to settle into a regular format. The 2,200m of the first two international QEII Cups was the seventh different distance in the race's history and, remarkably, it had only ever been run at the same trip for four consecutive seasons once in its 20-year history.
Dubai was again the winner when the world's best-known stable, Godolphin, turned up with two superstars in Frankie Dettori and Overbury to blow away the second international QEII field by five lengths and score the first win on Hong Kong soil for 'the boys in blue'.
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor was back a year later when he had to settle for third with Annus Mirabilis and a second win in the race has continued to elude Godolphin since, despite a number of starters.
In 1997, the race solidified. The distance was cut to 2,000m, where it has stayed, and broke new ground on the world stage when London News became the first South African-based horse to travel overseas and win an international event.
London News also played a significant part that day in Hong Kong racing history by transplanting jockey Douglas Whyte from Durban to Sha Tin.
Whyte had ridden for the first time here early that 1996-97 season and had plenty of success in a three-month contract before returning home to South Africa. His trip with London News was to be a hit-and-run but, after winning the QEII, Whyte was asked to ride the rest of the season and he agreed.
He has been a dominant force since, winning the past seven jockeys' championships and standing on the brink of riding his 1,000th Hong Kong winner.
Whyte teamed with trainer Ivan Allan the following year to win the QEII on the much-loved grey Oriental Express, the first local to win the race in its international format, and it was another Hong Kong legend who took the event in 1999. Jim And Tonic, the great French 'red' with the booming finish, remains one of only two horses to have won three international events in Hong Kong, sandwiching his QEII win between the 1998 Hong Kong Bowl four months earlier and the Hong Kong Cup the following December.
He ran in a total of seven internationals at Sha Tin, three of them QEII Cups, and finished unplaced only once.
He was beaten in a nail-biting finish in 2000 behind Brian Kan Ping-chee-trained Industrialist, then German globetrotter Silvano separated Jim And Tonic from the first prize in 2001.
Eishin Preston was the other galloper to score three internationals at Sha Tin, with the Japanese star apparently reserving his best only for Hong Kong.
No horse had won the race twice since Nazakat, but Eishin Preston turned up to match the feat in 2002 and 2003 to add to his 2001 Hong Kong Mile success.
Another South African, Irridescence, took the race in 2006, but the AP QEII has also showcased the rise of the Hong Kong racehorse in recent times, with River Dancer (2004), Vengeance Of Rain (2005) and Viva Pataca last year fending off the foreign challengers to keep the prize at home.
And in doing so, Vengeance Of Rain - the only Hong Kong Derby winner to take the AP QEII in the same season - and Viva Pataca introduced themselves to the wider world as horses who would be a force to be reckoned with on foreign soil as well.
It has been a long journey from Nazakat, but the AP QEII Cup is now firmly entrenched on the calendar as a world racing event in Asia's World City - this year celebrating its 10th running under the sponsorship of watchmaker Audemars Piguet.