Irish wizard Aidan O’Brien will attempt to put the icing on the most successful Group One season in world flat racing history with a full-frontal assault on the Longines Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) at Sha Tin December 10.
The Jockey Club has announced the invited runners for the four Group One features and O’Brien has six of the 32 foreign-trained invitees, who will go to war over the HK$86.5 million in stake money with 23 locally trained runners.
Hong Kong’s defences look strongest around the two races it has dominated, the Hong Kong Sprint, which has gone offshore only three times in the past 15 runnings, and the Mile, which has stayed home in 10 of the last 11 editions and last year’s victor, Beauty Only is looking to go back-to-back.
But the longer races will provide a sterner test for the local hopefuls, and O’Brien will present powerful chances in both the HK$25 million Hong Kong Cup (2,000m) and the HK$18 million Hong Kong Vase (2,400m).
In late October, O’Brien passed the all-time record for Group One wins in the calendar year when he saddled up win number 26 and he has since added more victories, with even his second placing in the Melbourne Cup with Johannes Vermeer seeming like another milestone for the extended family yard when he was runner-up to Rekindled, trained by his son, Joseph.
O’Brien has had a relatively minor HKIR impact from 13 runners spread out over 15 years, with Highland Reel’s 2015 Vase win and second placing in 2016 the only highlights, but he will tackle three of the four events this time with six runners.
Highland Reel will still provide a highlight, bowing out of racing with his third successive attempt on the Vase, which is going to hold considerable attention in the grand stayer’s rematch with his Breeders’ Cup Turf conqueror, the Andre Fabre-trained Talismanic, carrying the colours of Godolphin.
They will be the highest-rated runners on the programme by the world international classifications, with Highland Reel rated 123 and Talisman 122, but the invitations feature 30 horses with an international rating of 115 or higher.
Of the 55 invited runners announced, 24 are already Group One winners, quite a number of them multiple times over.
Last year’s HKIR was virtually a face off between Hong Kong and Japan, with scores level at two wins apiece, when the Japanese presented the largest foreign-trained contingent ever to land at Sha Tin.
This time the largest overseas-trained group comes from Great Britain, with nine invitees, five of them Group One winners, ahead of eight invitees for both Japan and Ireland. France provides six runners and the United States has a lone representative with the shock Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner, Stormy Liberal, hoping to do a double which has never been won.
As expected, quarantine issues between the Australian government and China have prevented any Australian participation, but the Vase will feature the Willie Mullins-trained Melbourne Cup third, Max Dynamite as well as the Australian-owned and French-trained Tiberian, both on their way home from the Melbourne Cup.
The list for the December showpiece features winners at some of the iconic meetings on the calendar, including the Breeders’ Cup, Royal Ascot, British Champions Day and the Yasuda Kinen and Japanese St Leger.
Other world-renowned trainers represented include Sir Michael Stoute, Dermot Weld and Japanese masters, Noriyuki Hori, Yasutoshi Ikee and Katsuhiko Sumii, and it wouldn’t be HKIR without French trainer Corine Barande-Barbe, who became a perennial with Cirrus Des Aigles and she is back again with Garlingari.
“The Hong Kong International Races is world horse racing’s year-end showcase and we are delighted that this year’s selected runners for the four Group One races are up to the high standard of excellence we have come to expect,” Jockey Club executive director of Racing Business and Operations Tony Kelly said.
“Last year’s occasion was about as good as it gets: Maurice, Beauty Only, Aerovelocity and Satono Crown each were brilliant winners of exciting races, but Hong Kong never rests on its laurels. The depth of quality in the four races this year means that we can look forward with certainty to another great day of sport on the second Sunday in December.”