When the Japanese turned up in force for the QE II Cup last April and went away empty-handed from a race they were expected to dominate, it appears only to have strengthened their resolve to claim the HK$25 million Longines Hong Kong Cup next month for a fourth time rather than dented it.
The richest race on the Hong Kong calendar, the Cup holds an important place in Japanese racing history as it was the stage for that country’s first international win on foreign soil when Fujiama Kenzan won the 1995 edition, but the Cup and Japanese racing have both come a long way since.
Local Cup hopes might rest on a repeat of the Japanese not turning up on the day as happened when Lovely Day, Nuovo Record and Satono Crown struck a soft track in the QE II, a slippery patch that played against them and left them no match for Werther, with Military Attack and Blazing Speed filling the minor spots.
But injury has sidelined Werther along with his Derby runner-up Victory Magic, leaving Hong Kong’s middle distance top order without the younger up and comers.
While April is open to the rains, December is an unlikely month to offer any hope of wet weather and the 2016 Hong Kong Cup looks an uneven match between Japan and Hong Kong’s ageing Group One stars like Designs On Rome, Blazing Speed and Military Attack, joined by Jockey Club Cup winner Secret Weapon, fresh to the Group racing mix.
They are still worthwhile opposition when they turn up fit and in form but, characteristically for their years – Designs On Rome is rising seven, Blazing Speed eight and Military Attack will be nine on January 1 – have become less reliable with advancing age. Only Secret Weapon and Group Three winner Horse Of Fortune, neither of them spring chickens themselves, could be said to be still on the rise and have yet to win at the elite level.
They will face off with the likes of Maurice, A Shin Hikari, Lovely Day and Staphanos, horses in the prime of their careers and mostly horses we have seen win or run well at Sha Tin before.
For all that A Shin Hikari, who gave one of the most exciting performances in the world in 2015 to lead all the way in this race at breakneck pace, is rated higher globally than Maurice, but the latter has all the star power.
A Shin Hikari is seen at home and abroad as a quirky type, a head case who can steam roll the opposition or fail without excuse, while Maurice is a different kind of machine, who has rarely let anyone down and has successfully made the transition from miler to middle distance star during recent months.
He stumbled with a soft-track second to Neorealism in August stepping to 2000m but his last-start Tenno-Sho victory in Tokyo was full of authority in late October and he will be a worthy Cup favourite as he attempts to emulate fellow Japanese great Lord Kanaloa by bowing out of racing with a Sha Tin feature.
To the names above, add four-year-old filly Queens Ring, a lightly raced winner of two Group Ones from three starts in Japan in 2016, including the Queen Elizabeth II Cup – the race that Snow Fairy came through to win the Hong Kong Cup – and it is a deep group from Japan.
The one fly in the ointment for a straight up Hong Kong-Japan head to head is the Andreas Wohler-trained Potemkin from Germany, but he has to make the lift from winning his maiden Group One on heavy ground in Italy earlier this month to being competitive in strong company on firm ground at Sha Tin.