The top three horses in the latest world classifications – American Pharoah, Golden Horn and Treve – have all recently retired but the HK$25 million Longines Hong Kong Cup will bring a taste of that rarefied form with Dermot Weld-trained Free Eagle.
Free Eagle bows out to stud after what will be just his fourth run in 2015, during which he has a decision over The Grey Gatsby at Royal Ascot, a controversial third to Golden Horn in Ireland when he was severely interfered with by the winner in the final 200m and a sixth behind the same horse in the Arc. Crucially, Weld has chosen to tackle the shorter Cup, not the Vase, and Free Eagle has had four runs at the distance for two wins and two good thirds.
Wily Weld has had five runners at Sha Tin, though none since 2002, and is no stranger to success here, winning the very first Hong Kong Bowl (later the Mile) with Additional Risk and also took second in the Cup that year with Prudent Manner.
The Japanese field a formidable four-pronged attack led by three four-year-old males, A Shin Hikari, Satono Aladdin, who quinellaed the Group Three Epsom Cup in June in that order, and Staphanos, back for revenge as promised by trainer Hideaki Fujiwara after he finished runner-up in the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup in April and on top of his form with a second in the Group One Tenno Sho behind Lovely Day last month.
A Shin Hikari is also a recent Group Two winner in Tokyo and brings a tantalizing dynamic to a race where tempo is often a question mark – he is a bold front-runner who sets strong, even fractions and is tough to run down. He was ninth in Lovely Day’s Tenno Sho when unable to get the lead. The filly, Nuovo Record, completes the Japanese contingent after a last-start Group One second in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Kyoto, the race Snow Fairy came through to win this.
From Australia comes David Hayes with Criterion, who doesn’t sleep it seems. He was third here last year, beaten favourite in the QE II Cup in April, and looks the world’s premier globetrotter now after runs in Hong Kong, England and Australia in the last seven months and with planned trips to Japan and Dubai apparently ahead. He is joined by quality Australian mare Lucia Valentina, trained by Kris Lees, whose late father Max brought Corporate James for a midfield finish in the 1998 Cup. Lucia Valentina was back in form in Melbourne, winning a Group Two against her own gender and will find this harder, but has had only six starts at 2,000m for two Group One wins, a Group Two win and two placings.
Gailo Chop, the recent Mackinnon Stakes winner in Melbourne, and Free Port Lux represent France, a nation with a good history in the race, winning with Vision D’Etat and Pride in the last decade. Gailo Chop also likes to front-run so his tactical face-off with A Shin Hikari should be interesting.
On the local front, the charge will be led by Designs On Rome, Military Attack and Blazing Speed, which has a rather familiar ring to it and should, since they ran around in last year’s edition as the first three favourites and ran the quinella and last, respectively.
Beauty Only is the one new contender to have emerged from the younger ranks who went through the 2015 classics, a slight concern for the home team which also includes ageing Dan Excel. It is a solid group on paper, but vulnerable in reality, as Military Attack has his share of issues and Designs On Rome looks to have returned well but has still to prove himself again after joint surgery in the off-season.