When HK$63 million is on the line, you can normally expect jockeys to come from far and wide to grab their slice of the pie.
Group One race days in Hong Kong in recent years have typically seen the likes of Ryan Moore, William Buick, Oisin Murphy, James McDonald, Hugh Bowman, Tommy Berry and Gerald Mosse jet in with plum rides as they look to pull off a hit-and-run mission.
More often than not, they leave with a share of the cash. It won’t be the case on FWD Champions Day later this month, however, with the three features – the QE II Cup (2,000m), Champions Mile and Chairman’s Sprint Prize (1,200m) – set to be fought out largely by local riders.
Covid-19 has changed everything. With travel from Europe all but blocked by the Hong Kong government and Australia out of the picture due to tough quarantine measures, connections have had to look on shore to find riders.
Hong Kong-based riders Joao Moreira (Danon Smash), Chad Schofield (Kiseki) and Vincent Ho Chak-yiu (Loves Only You) get their chance aboard three gun Japanese raiders, while the connections of Glory Vase are expected to make a decision this week on their jockey.
Courier Wonder earns rave reviews from Joao Moreira after hard-fought win: ‘he’s going to go far – I can tell you that’
It marks the first time that Schofield and Ho will ride Japanese horses on Hong Kong soil, a huge nod to their improvement as jockeys and an acknowledgement of their ability to compete at the top level.
Perhaps more importantly, Hong Kong-based jockeys will ride Hong Kong horses in the main races.
Danon Smash #ダノンスマッシュ 🇯🇵 follows his G1 @LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint victory with another at the top-level in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo!— HKJC Racing (@HKJC_Racing) March 28, 2021
He holds an entry for the G1 Chairman's Sprint Prize on FWD Champions Day (25 April). #競馬 #HKracing pic.twitter.com/yfBYr0evtA
There has long been a sense of frustration among the jockeys’ fraternity over the fascination with international riders by Hong Kong owners, with many often feeling hard done by when the decision is made to fly them in at significant expense to ride a horse they have no association with.
Japanese rider Kohei Matsuyama is the only international coming on the day (to ride QE II Cup favourite Daring Tact), giving Hong Kong-based jockeys the perfect opportunity to showcase their skills.
After accommodating almost 10 international riders in December’s “racing bubble”, Jockey Club officials will breathe a sigh of relief this time around.
With Covid-19 still rife throughout Europe, it was determined jockeys from those areas would be required to complete the mandatory hotel quarantine period if they wanted to compete on the day, all but ruling out their participation.
With Loves Only You arriving from Dubai, connections will be required to send staff from Japan to meet the horse upon its arrival in Hong Kong with those from the United Arab Emirates deemed unable to participate in the “racing bubble”.
The five-year-old comes to Hong Kong in top form after running a brave third behind Mishriff in the Group One Dubai Sheema Classic (2,400m) last month.
Meanwhile, Francis Lui Kin-wai’s decision to run Golden Sixty in the Champions Mile over the QE II Cup has been justified with the Hong Kong superstar set to face off against just five rivals.
Hong Kong Derby winner Sky Darci has been scratched from the HK$20 million feature, with connections instead targeting a Group Three race later in the season to give him time to get over his gut-busting effort in the Derby.
It means the 131-rater will face the ageing Southern Legend, Ka Ying Star, Mighty Giant, More Than This and Classic Cup winner Healthy Happy.
A 44-start veteran, Southern Legend has still been a fantastic money spinner for connections this season, picking up more than HK$13 million in his eight starts including three Group One runner-up cheques.
It means Ho is set to join Zac Purton, Moreira and Darren Beadman as the only jockeys to win back-to-back Champions Miles in the 20-year history of the race should Golden Sixty salute as expected.