The last time the Japanese landed in such significant numbers in December, 1941, Hong Kong was occupied for three years and the list of invitations for the HK$83 million Longines Hong Kong International Races suggests an invasion is again on its way next month from the Land of the Rising Sun.
In 2014 and again in 2015, the Japanese horses for the HKIR meeting came in record numbers but the 13-strong wave that will arrive in two weeks, spread across the four international Group Ones on December 11, will be the strongest single-jurisdiction representation in the history of the event.
Among the invited runners announced on Wednesday, Japanese representatives make up 13 of the 28 foreign visitors and 8 of the 16 foreign Group One winners, with winning prospects in certainly three of the four features.
Overall, the foreign invitees number five fewer than a year ago but the quirky note for the day is that, for the first time in HKIR history, last year’s four HKIR winners – local sprinter Peniaphobia, Japan’s Maurice and A Shin Hikari and Coolmore’s Highland Reel – will return, albeit with Maurice switching from the Hong Kong Mile to the Hong Kong Cup over 2,000m.
“All four of the 2015 champions are set to compete again and the home team will have its work cut out to better the one win achieved last time around,” said Jockey Club executive director of racing business and operations, Tony Kelly. “It is particularly exciting to see Maurice’s connections sportingly opting to take on the challenge of the Cup rather than the Mile this time. Add to the mix the rematch between Japan’s Big Arthur and Red Falx, the return of Able Friend, the continuing exploits of Highland Reel, and an altogether world class line-up of challengers primed for competition, and it’s safe to say we are in for a year-end treat on 11 December. The Longines Hong Kong International Races is global horseracing at its best.”
The Japanese team for the HK$25 million Hong Kong Cup is led by the joint fourth-ranked horse in the world, runaway 2015 winner A Shin Hikari, and joint seventh-ranked Maurice but it doesn’t end there as Lovely Day, Staphanos and Queen’s Ring also look formidable opposition for the local Dad’s Army crew of ageing middle distance horses.
Training legend Andre Fabre brings Elliptique while another well-known world travelling trainer, Andreas Wohler has Potemkin representing Germany, coming off a Group One win in Italy.
Entries for the HK$23 million Hong Kong Mile suggest that the sigh of relief heard from the home town mile quarter when it became clear that 2015 winner Maurice would switch distances for his swansong may have been premature. The Japanese contingent for the Mile contains the only two horses to have beaten Maurice in the past two and a half years – Logotype and Neorealism.
The local entries led by Beauty Only appear solid without being dominant, and much of the local interest will centre on whether Able Friend can find his old form in time to recapture the race he won in a canter in 2014.
The HK$18.5 million Hong Kong Sprint usually offers the best hope for the home team and is a race in which, champion Lord Kanaloa aside, the Japanese have never stood out.
But they will be here in strength this year with Big Arthur and Red Falx, winners of the two Group One 1,200m events in Japan this year, in what is a diverse edition of the race with six jurisdictions represented, including France’s Signs Of Blessings, Australia’s Rebel Dane and King’s Stand Stakes winner Profitable from Great Britain.
With the exception of Zac Purton’s light-fingered display to steal the Vase in 2013, the 2,400m feature has been the property of foreign runners since 1998, and the Europeans in particular, and last year’s winner, Highland Reel stands astride this renewal like a Colossus.
Aidan O’Brien’s four-year-old attempts to join Luso and Doctor Dino as back-to-back winners of the Vase and arrives with a freshly minted Breeders’ Cup-winner tag on him and a King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes win under his belt since last year.
It’s one race where Japan might have to take a back seat but the French, always hard to beat, turn up with a solid four-handed team led by Pascal Bary-trained Silverwave and Alain de Royer Dupre-trained One Foot In Heaven.