The Longines Hong Kong International Races received a huge boost over the weekend with some key overseas stars stating their intention to pursue a start in the HK$95 million event, but in terms of credibility the best result might have come on home soil.
Furore’s impressive win in the Group Three Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (1,800m) was important on multiple levels.
Firstly, it is a big relief for connections with the six-year-old securing his first victory since the 2019 Hong Kong Derby.
Furore was around the mark for most of last season but just couldn’t breakthrough. He certainly wasn’t bad – he placed twice at Group One level (second in the QE II Cup and third in the Champions & Chater Cup), came second in the Group Two Jockey Club Cup and fourth in the Hong Kong Cup – but he hadn’t reached the heights originally hoped.
A change of stable halfway through last term – from Frankie Lor Fu-chuen to Tony Cruz – appears to have worked wonders.
After the race, Cruz said the key was having “a healthy, happy horse”, hinting that it might have taken a bit of time to get the horse right.
Aside from a new handler, the biggest change was spending three and a half months in Conghua, the Jockey Club’s training facility in mainland China.
Typically, trainers have been reluctant to send their best horses across the border and that’s understandable – they want to be hands-on with their stars.
But the environment is better for horses – more space, fresh air, newer facilities and less congestion than Sha Tin – so perhaps the fact Furore was able to produce his best on the back of a stint at Conghua will encourage more to explore that option.
The result was also good for the reputation of the Derby.
Setting this year’s winner Golden Sixty aside – he’s a bona fide star and still on the rise – none of the Derby champions from 2015 (Luger), 2017 (Rapper Dragon), 2018 (Ping Hai Star) and 2019 (Furore) had won in any of the subsequent seasons after their success in Hong Kong’s most prestigious event.
Most of that was terrible luck with Luger, Rapper Dragon and Ping Hai Star being cut down by health issues, but it was becoming somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Thankfully, Furore is no longer on that list.
Perhaps most importantly, the win was crucial for the integrity of this year’s HKIR.
It is no secret the depth at the top-end of Hong Kong racing ranks is lacking right now. A look at the local entries for the city’s richest race – the HK$28 million Hong Kong Cup – makes that crystal clear.
There were 24 nominations and only three had won Group Ones in Hong Kong – Exultant (who will go to the Vase), Southern Legend and Time Warp (whose best days are behind him and is coming off a suspensory injury).
Golden Sixty was the best of the rest and he is a Group One winner in waiting, but he’s going to the Mile.
Furore was next then the sixth highest-rated horse was Simply Brilliant, who did win a Class One over a mile last season but was unplaced in his five starts at Group level. It drops off pretty quickly from there – hardly an imposing line-up.
But Furore’s performance shows there are now two genuinely good horses set to fly the Bauhinia flag in the Cup – Southern Legend (who ran a brave fourth) and Cruz’s reclamation project, who looks ready to produce his best campaign.
It’s one thing to talk about all the internationals who might make the trip, but there needs to be a base level of competency from the home team.
Classique Legend (we’ll claim him) in the Sprint, Golden Sixty in the Mile, Furore/Southern Legend in the Cup and Exultant in the Vase – they provide legitimate benchmarks the overseas contestants have to overcome.
Given all the challenges this year has thrown up and the efforts to ensure HKIR goes ahead to the highest level possible, the runs of Furore and Exultant (who was outstanding in finishing second first-up with 133 pounds) on Sunday means the Sha Tin-based horses are pulling their weight in the four features.
While it’s nice to have Aidan O’Brien commit to coming and interest from Japan and Singapore, we need a decent set of home-grown stars to give the competition real credibility. It looks like we have that now.