Home stars ready to shine

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 December, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong has its best chance in years to take the HK$20 million Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup (2,000m) today at Sha Tin.

The Tony Cruz-trained California Memory (Matthew Chadwick) will have admirers, on the strength of his second behind Ambitious Dragon in the QE II Cup over the same course in May, but punters will surely pin their hearts to the Tony Millard-trained gelding and his perennial champion jockey Douglas Whyte.

The race looks a showdown between France and Hong Kong, with the world's second highest-rated horse, Cirrus des Aigles (Christophe Soumillon) and the only horse to have conquered him in his last five outings, Byword (Maxime Guyon).

The best locals have so often been competitive in the Hong Kong Cup, yet it is a race that, in its time as a serious international contest has been kept at home only by David Ferraris' Vengeance Of Rain as favourite in 2005 and by David Oughton's Precision in a 64-1 upset in 2002.

River Verdon also won in 1991 and Motivation two years later, but it wasn't the race then that it has become and the flags of France, England, Ireland, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa and Japan have been flown to celebrate its annexation more recently.

Viva Pataca was unlucky not to win it on at least one occasion and Irian, Collection and Bullish Luck have gone close, but Ambitious Dragon at his best has looked a better proposition than any of those horses and, like them, enjoys a home-track advantage.

Perhaps Guyon was simply overconfident when untroubled to sit wide and Ambitious Dragon was beaten in the Jockey Club Cup for the first time in a year, perhaps that scintillating first-up win on National Day took more out of the gelding than anyone presumed and he was below his best.

But with Whyte back on and that flat run behind him, whether the real Ambitious Dragon turns up is one of the key questions.

If the world ratings are right, Cirrus des Aigles would win the race but, like all such official assessments, they are designed more for after the event than in a predictive role.

A line-up through California Memory, whose Gold Cup performance was superior even to Snow Fairy's eye-popping win in this race last year, says the current Hong Kong form line is good enough to win the race, in what could develop into a race won by the best turn of foot.

Most expect Durban Thunder or Ransom Note to provide the leadership but, without outside pressure on them, whether they provide a solid pace remains to be seen and a sprint home may play into the hands of Whyte and Chadwick.

Both Ambitious Dragon and California Memory have shown that they can finish off the 2,000m at Sha Tin in sub-22 second sectionals, low flying over such a distance.

Of course, Soumillon is a brilliant tactical rider who may not be content to let the race devolve into a quarter-mile blast, and it would not be a surprise if he took action at some stage on Cirrus des Aigles - an on-pace runner himself - to ensure that isn't how the scene plays out.