It took a year and some foreign exchange movement for the Jockey Club's 2014 prize money boost to sink in but the strength in depth has never been higher than at next month's HK$83 million Longines Hong Kong International Races where the Hong Kong Mile promises to steal the spotlight.
For several years, it seemed that the increased competition for high class horses and Hong Kong's seeming invincibility in the Mile and Sprint was taking its toll on the will of the visitors.
But the Sprint has fallen to foreign horses three times in five years, the invaders are at the gates for the Mile, and with an improving US dollar adding lipstick and mascara to the stakes offered, 33 foreign horses were amongst the invitations announced today for the four races, including a record Japanese contingent of 10 horses.
If they all make it to post, it will be the biggest foreign group at Sha Tin's showpiece day since 35 lined up in 2008, the first time the club has attracted more than 30 foreign runners since 2009 and equalling the largest number of competitors rated 120 or higher in the history of the event.
The HK$23 million Hong Kong Mile technically holds second billing behind the HK$25 million Cup but threatens to steal the show, with the invitation of Japan's Maurice, whose win in last Sunday's Mile Championship in Kyoto made him the first horse to hold both Japan's Group One 1,600m titles concurrently since Daiwa Major in 2007.
He looms as a very serious rival to Able Friend, the highest-rated runner at the meeting on 125, allaying fears that the John Moore-trained champion would frighten off the opposition. Despite the record and reputation Able Friend has built in the past year at home, his rivals look stronger than when the chestnut demolished the 2014 renewal to complete nine straight Mile wins for Hong Kong.
Although the Mile head-to-head clash has potential to stand out, the Cup also features a headline visitor in Dermot Weld-trained Free Eagle, highly competitive in the very best company this year and successful at Royal Ascot, at the top of what looks the best edition of the race in years. This will be Weld's first runner at Sha Tin since 2002 and he is not a man who travels horses lightly.
Free Eagle will be met not only by Hong Kong's solid, if ageing, middle distance contingent but four strong prospects from Japan, two Australian multiple Group One winners and two high quality French raiders.
The absence of out-of-sorts 2014 winner Aerovelocity and the injury to much-touted Australian sprinter Chautauqua last week have left the HK$18.5 million Hong Kong Sprint looking slightly threadbare but Hong Kong has the numbers and miler-turned-sprinter Gold-Fun and last year's runner-up Peniaphobia offer stern resistance on home soil to the Japanese - for many years before Lord Kanaloa never a Sprint factor - with the Breeders' Cup tossing in a rare surprise with two runners, including the fascinating Mongolian-trained bidder, Mongolian Saturday.
But for Zac Purton's rabbit out of a hat ride on Dominant in 2013, the foreign horses - in particular the Europeans - have owned the Vase over 2,400m. The returning hero, French-trained Flintshire, ensures they hold the whip hand again but his fellow Europeans look a deeper bunch this time, including the remarkable Cirrus des Aigles, scheduled to make an unprecedented seventh trip to Hong Kong.
“Here in Hong Kong we have a strong contingent of talented, international-calibre horses, notably the outstanding Able Friend, but at this year’s HKIR our home team will face perhaps its toughest test of recent times," said executive director of racing, Bill Nader. "Looking at the 33 talented overseas challengers - horses of the class of Flintshire, Maurice, Esoterique and Free Eagle, to name a few - we have some of the most exciting horses in the world heading for Sha Tin on the second Sunday in December. This is international racing at the highest level and everyone is in for a real treat.”