The build-up to the Hong Kong International Races continued on Wednesday with the announcement of the selected runners for the four features to be run December 13.

The feature is the HK$25 million Hong Kong Cup (2,000m), the richest race run in Hong Kong and the culmination of the racing season globally.

With an honour roll like Jim And Tonic (1999), Fantastic Light (2000), Falbrav (2003), Alexander Goldrun (2004), Vengeance Of Rain (2005), Snow Fairy (2010) and California Memory (2011, 2012), it is a good horse's race, and this year sees depth rarely matched on the world stage.

So who are the 14 runners in this year's Hong Kong Cup? SCMP writer Andrew Hawkins dives into the contenders.

DESIGNS ON ROME (IRE)
Five-year-old bay gelding

Country: Hong Kong
Trainer: John Moore
Probable jockey: Joao Moreira
Owner: Cheng Keung-fai
Breeding: Holy Roman Emperor x Summer Trysting (Alleged)
Biggest Win: Group One Hong Kong Cup (2,000m), Sha Tin, 14 December 2014
Last 10 Starts: 5x38511144x6
International Rating: 123

Last year's Hong Kong Cup winner, Designs On Rome is aiming to become just the second horse to go back-to-back after California Memory (2011, 2012). Beginning his career in Ireland with Pat Flynn, he was bought for big money after finishing second to English 2,000 Guineas winner Dawn Approach in a juvenile Group One. He quickly progressed in Hong Kong, becoming one of the top four-year-olds in the 2013-14 season and involved in a number of memorable clashes with stablemate Able Friend on his way to Hong Kong Derby glory. He returned in the Jockey Club Mile after off-season joint surgery, flashing home for a good sixth, but is he as good as he once was?


FREE EAGLE (IRE)
Four-year-old bay horse

Country: Ireland
Trainer: Dermot Weld
Probable jockey: Pat Smullen
Owner: Moyglare Stud Farm
Breeding: High Chaparral x Polished Gem (Danehill)
Biggest Win: Group One Prince Of Wales's Stakes (2,012m), Ascot, 17 June 2015
Last 10 Starts: -12x13x1x36
International Rating: 123

Irish veteran of only seven starts, trained by the wily wizard Dermot Weld and having his final start before retiring to the Irish National Stud next year. He has always looked a horse of immense promise with a big race in him, and while he won the Prince Of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot, he appears capable of going to an even higher level. He was controversially knocked over in the Irish Champion Stakes, while he probably didn't quite see out the mile and a half in the Arc. Returning to 2,000m looks a big positive. Can he end his career on a high?


BLAZING SPEED (GB)
Six-year-old bay gelding

Country: Hong Kong
Trainer: Tony Cruz
Probable jockey: Neil Callan
Owner: Fentons Racing Syndicate
Breeding: Dylan Thomas x Leukippids (Sadler's Wells)
Biggest Win: Group One QE II Cup (2,000m), Sha Tin, 26 April 2015
Last 10 Starts: 41043614x62
International Rating: 121

Beginning his career with James Fanshawe, he had four starts in the UK before he was bought as a Derby prospect. However, he took a long time to settle in properly in Hong Kong, at first for Caspar Fownes and then for Tony Cruz. Since he did acclimatise, though, he has been remarkably solid and consistent, winning Group One races from 1,600m to 2,400m and continually running to a similar mark. His career best came in the QE II Cup in April, when he showed a nice turn of foot to score, and he enters this in good form. Can he add Hong Kong's richest race to his already impressive resume?


CRITERION (NZ)
Five-year-old chestnut horse

Country: Australia
Trainer: David Hayes
Probable jockey: Craig Williams
Owner: Sir Owen Glenn
Breeding: Sebring x Mica's Pride (Bite The Bullet)
Biggest Win: Group One Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2,000m), Randwick, 11 April 2015
Last 10 Starts: 3x321356123
International Rating: 120

Quickly becoming the premier globetrotter of the day, making his third trip to Hong Kong in a year after runs in both Australia and the UK in between. He has run in a Golden Slipper, the world's richest juvenile race, as well as a Melbourne Cup, the world's richest staying handicap, and everything in between. He is simply bombproof. Two runs in Hong Kong have netted two thirds, while he is coming off placings in the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup, so he enters in good form. One would expect he is coming to the end of his preparation, and yet there are plans to tackle Japan and Dubai after this. Hard to knock him on what he's doing at the moment.


MILITARY ATTACK (IRE)
Seven-year-old bay gelding

Country: Hong Kong
Trainer: Caspar Fownes
Probable jockey: Zac Purton
Owner: Canny Leung Chi-shan
Breeding: Oratorio x Almaaseh (Dancing Brave)
Biggest Win: Group One QE II Cup (2,000m), Sha Tin, 28 April 2013
Last 10 Starts: 23x122x472x31
International Rating: 120

Formerly raced as Rave for John Hills, the former horse of the year is now problematic, according to trainer Caspar Fownes. He has a number of joint issues and requires a lot of pain management. However, his last three starts have been the Military Attack of old - a slashing second in the Singapore Airlines International Cup, a flying third in the Sha Tin Trophy before his narrow win in the Jockey Club Cup. The question is, was he primed for the lead-up and will he have spent his pennies come international day? He can atone for his narrow defeat to Designs On Rome last year if he is at his peak, but it is a big if. 


DAN EXCEL (IRE)
Seven-year-old bay gelding

Country: Hong Kong
Trainer: John Moore
Probable jockey: Tommy Berry
Owner: David Boehm
Breeding: Shamardal x Love Excelling (Polish Precedent)
Biggest Win: Group One Singapore Airlines International Cup (2,000m), Kranji, 17 May 2015
Last 10 Starts: 31x68431x698
International Rating: 119

Arrived in Hong Kong with a big boom in late 2011, after winning two Group Threes and finishing fifth in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and Irish Derby as Dunboyne Express when trained by Kevin Prendergast. Incredibly, in 31 starts in Hong Kong, Dan Excel has only won twice - taking the traditional season-closing Class One, the Sha Tin Mile Trophy, in 2012 before adding the Champions Mile in 2013. He has won twice since, but both were in Singapore, adding the now-defunct Singapore Airlines International Cup in 2014 and 2015. He is looking a light of his best days, but perhaps the 2,000m is what he needs these days. Still, would be a big ask for him to win. 


STAPHANOS (JPN)
Four-year-old bay horse

Country: Japan
Trainer: Hideaki Fujiwara
Probable jockey: Keita Tosaki
Owner: U Carrot Farm
Breeding: Deep Impact x Kokoshnik (Kurofune)
Biggest Win: Group Three Fuji Stakes (1,600m), Tokyo, 25 October 2014
Last 10 Starts: 1351x41x32x72
International Rating: 118

Trainer Hideaki Fujiwara has been aiming Staphanos at the Hong Kong Cup all year, ever since he finished second to Blazing Speed in the QE II Cup in April. He showed he was on song with a charging second to Lovely Day last start in the Tenno Sho (Autumn), only his second run since April. He has finished behind both Nuovo Record and A Shin Hikari this year, but looks the best suited of the Japanese horses here and has that old sense of timing about him. He's a major player.


GAILO CHOP (FR)
Four-year-old chestnut gelding

Country: France
Trainer: Antoine de Watrigant
Probable jockey: Christophe Soumillon
Owner: OTI Management Pty Ltd
Breeding: Deportivo x Grenoble (Marignan)
Biggest Win: Group One Mackinnon Stakes (2,000m), Flemington, 31 October 2015
Last 10 Starts: 11141x28x181
International Rating: 116

Has always looked a top horse in the making, but has been slightly disappointing this season, all being equal. His best performance came with a second on soft ground to Solow in the Prix d'Ispahan, before he failed to settle and weakened out behind Free Eagle in the Prince Of Wales's Stakes. Was impressive over the straight course at Maisons-Laffitte in a Group Three, before a disappointing run in the Cox Plate, then was aided by a strong rails and on-pace bias when fighting back to win the Mackinnon Stakes last start at Flemington. Might find it tough with A Shin Hikari tackling him for the lead, especially if he struggles to breathe as he did in the Cox Plate. Treat with caution.


SATONO ALADDIN (JPN)
Four-year-old bay horse

Country: Japan
Trainer: Yasutoshi Ikee
Probable jockey: James McDonald
Owner: Hajime Satomi
Breeding: Deep Impact x Magic Storm (Storm Cat)
Biggest Win: President Of Mongolia Cup (1,800m), Tokyo, 23 May 2015
Last 10 Starts: 1466x2112x24
International Rating: 116

Has always been a fringe player, not quite top level but just off them. Placings to A Shin Hikari and Danon Platina have been noteworthy, while he flew home for fourth to Maurice in the Mile Championship last Sunday. The step up in trip looks to suit, as does the likely pace scenario. He will probably be somewhere around the mark, but is he good enough to win?


BEAUTY ONLY (IRE)
Four-year-old bay gelding

Country: Hong Kong
Trainer: Tony Cruz
Probable jockey: Gerald Mosse
Owner: Eleanor Kwok Law Kwai-chun & Patrick Kwok Ho-chuen
Breeding: Holy Roman Emperor x Goldendale (Ali-Royal)
Biggest Win: Group One Hong Kong Classic Mile (1,600m), Sha Tin, 18 January 2015
Last 10 Starts: 4146252123
International Rating: 115

Began his career in Italy under the name Gentleman Only when trained by Stefano Botti, he won three of his four starts as a two-year-old, including a Group Three success over 1,800m at the Capannelle. He arrived in Hong Kong with a bit of hype, which proved solid when he won easily in Class Three at his first start. From there, he progressed quickly, taking the Hong Kong Classic Mile at his fifth start before finding a couple too good in the other four-year-old legs. He looks to have returned well and was the eye-catcher in the Jockey Club Cup. There is probably still a question mark over a strong 2,000m and whether this has come too quickly for him, but this race should determine his stamina once and for all.


A SHIN HIKARI (JPN)
Four-year-old grey horse

Country: Japan
Trainer: Masanori Sakaguchi
Probable jockey: Yutaka Take
Owner: Eishindo Co Ltd
Breeding: Deep Impact x Catalina (Storm Cat)
Biggest Win: Group Two Mainichi Okan (1,800m), Tokyo, 11 October 2015
Last 10 Starts: 111x119x11x19
International Rating: 114

In the long tradition of crazy Japanese horses comes A Shin Hikari, a tearaway leader who runs his best races by grinding his rivals into submission. And the tactics have been tremendously successful, notching him eight wins from 10 starts. It looks a matter of time before he wins a Group One, although he will need the right pace shape for it to occur. Was not allowed to let run in the Tenno Sho last time out behind Lovely Day and he weakened, so it must be expected that he will revert to his previous run-along tactics at Sha Tin.


FREE PORT LUX (GB)
Four-year-old bay horse

Country: France
Trainer: Freddy Head
Probable jockey: Thierry Jarnet
Owner: Olivier Thomas
Breeding: Oasis Dream x Royal Highness (Monsun)
Biggest Win: Group Two Prix Dollar (1,950m), Longchamp, 3 October 2015
Last 10 Starts: 4210x555251
International Rating: 113

Freddy Head's Free Port Lux makes his second Asian sojourn this year, having finished fifth to Dan Excel in the Singapore Airlines International Cup in May. Free Port Lux looked a nice enough three-year-old, but had been out of sorts since finishing second-last to Treve in last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. It was only last start, in the Prix Dollar, that he finally found some semblance of form again. That said, the Prix Dollar looked a pretty weak race this year, and he appears a horse best suited by give underfoot. It would be hard to see him making up the ground necessary to win.


LUCIA VALENTINA (NZ)
Five-year-old brown mare

Country: Australia
Trainer: Kris Lees
Probable jockey: Damien Oliver
Owner: Lib Petagna
Breeding: Savabeel x Staryn Glenn (Montjeu)
Biggest Win: Group One Turnbull Stakes (2,000m), Flemington, 4 October 2014
Last 10 Starts: 49376x64891
International Rating: 112

Bonny mare began her career in New Zealand with Stephen Marsh, winning a Group Three at start number three before finishing second to arch-rival Rising Romance at her final New Zealand start. She was then transferred to Kris Lees in Australia, progressing to win the main lead-up to the Australian Oaks before finishing third, again to Rising Romance, in the Oaks itself. As a four-year-old, she recorded her best success, taking the Turnbull Stakes last year before finishing third as favourite in the Caulfield Cup. Has not been the same since, although finally showed a glimpse of form last start against mares. This looks a bridge too far on her current form though.


NUOVO RECORD (JPN)
Four-year-old chestnut mare

Country: Japan
Trainer: Makoto Saito
Probable jockey: Ryan Moore
Owner: Reiko Hara
Breeding: Heart's Cry x Omega Spirit (Spinning World)
Biggest Win: Group One Yushun Himba - Japanese Oaks (2,400m), Tokyo, 25 May 2014
Last 10 Starts: 31x122x165x22
International Rating: 112

Star three-year-old filly last year, staging a number of terrific battles with Harp Star. Finished third to Harp Star in the 1000 Guineas, the Oka Sho, before holding her off when stepping up to the mile and a half in the Japanese Oaks, the Yushun Himba. This year, has not been quite the same, although has been far from disgraced against some of the better Japanese horses around. She won the Nakayama Kinen before finishing fifth in the Victoria Mile to Sprint contender Straight Girl, sixth to Lovely Day in the Takarazuka Kinen and second in her last two, including a testing second to Marialite in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup against the mares. Will need a new career best to win here but not beyond her.

Stay tuned to the South China Morning Post for more guides to the Longines Hong Kong International Races 

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