Japanese stars Loves Only You and Lei Papale will take on some of Europe’s finest in what shapes as a fascinating edition of the Group One Hong Kong Cup (2,000m) next month.

The two heroines come up against Aidan O’Brien’s duo of Japan and Bolshoi Ballet as well as the placegetters from the Group One British Champion Stakes in Dubai Honour and Mac Swiney, with Noriyuki Hori’s Hishi Iguazu rounding out the visiting brigade for the HK$30 million contest – Hong Kong’s richest race.

It is the headline act of the Longines Hong Kong International Races and a total of 16 individual Group One winners have confirmed they will make the trek to Sha Tin from abroad to take on the might of home team in the four features on December 12, which are worth a grand total of HK$100 million.

There are 21 in all who have booked flights, with the biggest contingent from overseas coming from the Land of the Rising Sun – an even dozen – while there are six from Ireland, two from Britain and one raider from France.

The globetrotting mare Loves Only You is the star attraction, looking to cap off a marvellous campaign with another strong performance in an international Group One.

The Yoshito Yahagi-trained five-year-old kicked off her year by winning the Group Two Kyoto Kinen before running third to Mishriff in the Group One Dubai Sheema Classic, winning the Group One QE II Cup at Sha Tin, running second in the Group Two Sapporo Kinen and then capturing the Group One Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar earlier this month.

Given she’s already shown a penchant for the course and distance, Loves Only You has to be considered the early favourite.

Tomokazu Takano’s Lei Papale won her first six starts – including the Group One Osaka Hai in April – but even though she hasn’t won in her three runs since then, she is absolutely in the mix.

Dubai Honour, from the William Haggas stable, is another who has enjoyed a terrific 2021 with three wins – including two at Group Two level – to go with his narrow second to Sealiway in the feature at Ascot in October.

Mac Swiney, who was a length and a half behind Dubai Honour in the British Champion Stakes, captured the Irish 2,000 Guineas in May, his second top-level success after taking out the Futurity Trophy Stakes at Doncaster in October last year.

O’Brien’s duo are also Group One winners, Bolshoi Ballet claiming the Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes in July, while the veteran Japan, who is competing in the Japan Cup on Sunday, won the Grand Prix de Paris and the International Stakes at York in 2019.

Hishi Iguazu doesn’t boast the same credentials as his international rivals but he has been racing well with four wins on the trot, including the Group Two Nakayama Kinen, before his fifth to Efforia in the Tenno Sho (Autumn).

Of course Hori is no stranger to HKIR success, having won the Mile (2015) and the Cup (2016) with the legendary Maurice and the Vase with Satono Crown in 2016.

The locals are clearly the underdogs in this contest with only the Tony Millard-trained Panfield having tasted success at the highest level after saluting in the Champions & Chater Cup in May.

Francis Lui Kin-wai’s Glorious Dragon has to be given some hope as well, while Russian Emperor was unlucky when fifth in the Jockey Club Cup over the weekend.

Tourbillon Diamond, the winner of the Group Three Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse earlier this month, will also line up, with Tony Cruz’s pair of Ka Ying Star and Berlin Tango making up the 13-horse field.