Magical moments that cemented HK's place on the world stage
The 30th anniversary of Sha Tin racecourse and the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Cup, as an international race, is an appropriate moment to marvel at just how far the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) have come.
Extraordinary pieces of racing theatre have enthralled fans at Sha Tin and worldwide through the magic of television.
It seems curious, almost unbelievable now, to learn that there was some strong local opposition to the HKIR in the early days. A number of prominent local personalities campaigned vigorously against the concept, as the idea that you boost prize money only for foreign owners, trainers and jockeys to take it away made no sense to them.
In the launch year of 1988, international day was in fact one feature race, the Hong Kong Cup, and was snapped up by a local icon in Brian Kan Ping-chee, five-time champion trainer, New Territories politician and all-round colourful character. Kan's Flying Dancer led an all-Hong Kong finish, but the internationalisation began properly the following year when Colonial Chief came from Singapore to make the first of many statements on the world stage for Malayan Racing Association's seven-time champion trainer Ivan Allan.
The December meeting soon began to grow. In 1991, a second race was added - the Hong Kong Bowl at 1,400 metres - with the inaugural winner a horse from Ireland, Additional Risk. Three years later, the creation of the Vase at the metric mile-and-a-half made it three invitation races for the international brigade.
The pivotal event in the evolution of the HKIR came in 1998. The Jockey Club chairman at the time was the late Alan Li Fook-sum and his fledgling director of racing was the shooting star of German racing administration, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.
After the 10th anniversary, Li and Engelbrecht-Bresges planned for the future. They reshaped the Bowl, moving it to 1,600 metres and renaming it the Hong Kong Mile. A fourth race was introduced, the Hong Kong Sprint, to be decided up the straight 1,000-metre course. And they created a series of incentives that would cause Hong Kong's racehorse owners to go out and buy the calibre of horse that could successfully compete on this day of top-class racing.
There had been some severe droughts when the winners' enclosure at the December features was a local-free zone. When the Allan-trained Indigenous snared the Vase for Douglas Whyte in 1998, it had been five years since local successes by Motivation and Winning Partners. The day comprised three events and there had been 12 HKIR contests without a home win.
To state the obvious, Li's plan worked quickly and spectacularly. The inaugural Hong Kong Sprint in 1999 saw an unheralded Fairy King Prawn smash all opposition to take his reputation beyond our borders, and he became Hong Kong's first recognised world champion.
Three years later, Hong Kong-trained horses took three of the four internationals - All Thrills Too (Sprint), Olympic Express (Mile) and Precision (Cup). It remains, to this very day, Hong Kong's proudest moment on the international sporting scene. There have been some cracking highlights during the decade since Li spun that intoxicating vision of what was possible. For sheer ruthless efficiency, the moment fans will always remember was the second Hong Kong Sprint win in 2004 by the legendary Silent Witness.
The best race of all was the Mile of 2000 when the queen of Australian and New Zealand racing, Sunline, came calling and Fairy King Prawn was the pillar on which the hometown defence was built. Sunline was an avaricious front-runner, Fairy King Prawn a late closer with an electrifying finishing burst.
The roars of the crowd at Sha Tin that day reverberated through the grandstands as never before. It was the most exciting race ever seen at the home of Hong Kong racing and, when the famous pair split the line, only a nose separated them. Sunline took the cash home to New Zealand but in truth both horses deserved the honours.
Championship performances by the great French red Jim And Tonic, with storming finishes to take the Bowl one year and the Cup the next, are particularly memorable. Fine staying victories by Clive Brittain's Luso set a standard as European domination of the Vase commenced. There were powerful performances in the Bowl as Monopolize and Catalan Opening strung together three victories for the Aussies. The races moved from lower status to be recognised as Group Ones.
On the same day as Sunline won, outstanding English stayer Daliapour strolled home in the Vase for his new Hong Kong ownership, having been bought by property tycoon Robert Ng Chee Siong in the weeks leading up to the race, while Godolphin's Fantastic Light sealed his place as the world's best in the Cup. This was horseracing at its very best and there was no argument anywhere to say otherwise.
In 2001, a Japanese avalanche claimed three of the four races, but Hong Kong's best replied in kind in 2002 to bring a magic afternoon with all the Jockey Club's dreams fulfilled when All Thrills Too, Olympic Express and Precision shocked the world and perhaps the domestic knockers too.
No horse had the answer to the magnificent Falbrav, the world's best horse in 2003 as he whipped the Cup field under Frankie Dettori, but an awesome machine of Hong Kong's own was on display the same day. Silent Witness was sensational in the Sprint to claim one of two local victories along with Lucky Owners for the same team, Tony Cruz and Felix Coetzee, in the Mile.
If he was brilliant in 2003, a year on Silent Witness was utterly arrogant. The image of Coetzee still holding him down to a common canter 250 metres out, as all his rivals felt the whip's demands, remains one of the signature moments of both the gelding's amazing career and for the greater storybook of racing in Asia's 'World City'.
Quality moments have continued since, whether in Vengeance Of Rain claiming the world champion title in the 2005 Cup, Absolute Champion's simply stunning 2006 Sprint or The Duke or Natural Blitz backing up the warning that nobody comes to Hong Kong for a cosy benefit these days - bring your best or it just won't be good enough.
Last year, the home team was almost as awesome as it was in 2002. Sacred Kingdom claimed the Sprint and lifted the world's best sprinter tag in the same breathtaking piece of acceleration.
Since 2003, a Hong Kong sprinter has owned that title every year, with Silent Witness (2003, 2004, 2005) being followed by Absolute Champion (2006) and now Sacred Kingdom. The pressure is right on the sprinting team of 2008 because the honour of being the world's number one sprinter is starting to look like a trophy that lives here.
Good Ba Ba narrowly nailed Godolphin's feisty Creachadoir in the Mile last year thanks to a superlative Olivier Doleuze ride. It was also the race that confirmed Andreas Schutz's arrival as a force at the top level of Hong Kong racing.
The perfect set didn't quite work out as our star middle-distance horse Viva Pataca came up a centimetre or two short in an enthralling Hong Kong Cup battle against Ramonti. More correctly, it was his jockey Michael Kinane that came up short in a tactical head-to-head with the charismatic Dettori, the Italian putting Kinane into a zip-fastener and the Irishman being unable to extricate himself until fractionally too late.
This year, the sprinting ranks lack a Silent Witness or a Sacred Kingdom but they boast rare depth. Good Ba Ba is eminently capable of landing the Mile again and Viva Pataca's revenge mission looks to be bang on target. But there are 38 of the world's leading trainers who will have something to say before a clean sweep or anything like one can be assumed.
As the Jockey Club's William A. Nader put it so well, these meetings thrive on the willingness of sporting owners and trainers to bring great horses and meet other great horses with no fear of defeat, only the joy of the highest competition.
They call this day the 'turf world championships'. It's a sobriquet that has never looked more appropriate.