Published in the Dec. 22 issue of The Blood-Horse
In the week leading up to the Hong Kong International Races, the buzz during morning track works at the Sha Tin Racecourse was that Japan would have a very good day on Sunday.

No kidding.

Four races were run. Three times, the Japanese national anthem followed the winning ceremony, capped by the victory of Agnes Digital in the HK$18 million Hong Kong Cup. The only race the Japanese didn't win was the Sprint and their sole starter in that event was among the favorites.

"The Japanese had a strong team and they won three races. Congratulations to them," said jockey Frankie Dettori, who twice came up just short of a Japanese rival at the wire.

The day's premier event, the Hong Kong Cup, was a fitting finale for the international races -- a close finish among horses representing three nations on three continents.

Dettori put Godolphin Racing's Tobougg on the lead as the field hit the final turn in the 2000-meter race. The 3-year-old Barathea colt dug in gamely as Agnes Digital put in his bid on the outside with French-bred Terre A Terre moving three-wide.

Agnes Digital, a U.S.-bred, 4-year-old son of Crafty Prospector, worked his way to the front under jockey Hirofumi Shii. But Tobougg battled back, missing by just a head under the wire. Terre A Terre was only a neck farther back in third.

Hawkeye, representing Great Britain, was fourth in the Cup and Jim and Tonic finished fifth.

Shii started Agnes Digital from the No. 12 post position and needed to do some early work.

"It's a short distance to the first turn so I needed to get into good position before it was too late," he said. "It was a perfect race."

Both Dettori and Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor said Tobougg ran well and will be a force to contend with next year.

"He could end up being a very, very good horse next year," Dettori said. Suroor said he hasn't yet planned a 2002 campaign for Tobougg. "There are some nice races for him before next year in Hong Kong," he added. "He is developing. I believe next year he will be a very good horse."

And Agnes Digital's trainer, Toshiaki Shirai, said he hopes to take his horse to the Dubai World Cup next spring, then to "either the Breeders' Cup Turf or the Breeders' Cup Classic in America," so Sunday's race could have been the start of an international rivalry of significant proportions.

The Japanese domination was a turnaround from last year when they were no-shows at the event because of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Hong Kong, said Winfried Englebrecht-Bresges, director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. "It was their choice not to come. We can see from today's results that the Japanese horses are underestimated."

Heart Stopper in Vase
The HK$8 million Hong Kong Vase ended as a two-horse heart-stopper. Dettori sent Ekraar to the lead as the field of 14 left the backstretch in the 2400-meter event, opening up a lead of 5 lengths or more.

That wasn't enough as Yutaka Take set sail with Japanese star Stay Gold as the field straightened out for home. Cutting the margin with each stride, Stay Gold caught Ekraar in the final few jumps, winning by a head. Local favorite Indigenous was well back in third.

"It was a good ride," said Suroor, who trains Ekraar for Godolphin. "That is what we wanted Frankie to do. But still...."

Take, through an interpreter, said, "This was just like a miracle. He was running on his own. He wants to win very desperately."

Trainer Yasuo Ikee said the Vase was the final race for Stay Gold, a 7-year-old son of Sunday Silence who finished with seven victories in 50 trips to the track.

'Other' Japanese Horse Wins Mile
Japan struck again in the HK$14 million Hong Kong Mile, but not with pre-race favorite Zenno El Cid. Instead, it was Eishin Preston, a 4-year-old son of Green Dancer, who stormed home first with a strong move on the outside to beat Hong Kong's best hope, Electronic Unicorn. Godolphin was third, with China Visit not quite good enough.

Eishin Preston had been running with moderate success in middle-level events in Japan.

"He raced at his best," said winning rider Yuichi Fukunaga. "But the other horses were also strong."

Forbidden Apple, second to Val Royal in the Breeders' Cup Mile, got home fourth Sunday and jockey Corey Nakatani said he had trouble racing clockwise.

"He stayed on his left lead (after turning into the stretch)," Nakatani said. "He thought he was turning left and I was trying to get him to turn right. It was a good experience and he'll learn from it."

Sprint Rerun of 2000 Race
The HK$8 million Hong Kong Sprint turned out a carbon copy of last year's running, with Falvelon edging Morluc by a short head at the wire.

Australian hopeful Century Kid went out to a very quick lead, leaving Falvelon farther back than jockey Damien Oliver would have preferred. Robby Abarado was in the same fix aboard Morluc. "But," Said Oliver, "I knew that if they kept up that pace, that we could finish up strong."

Both Falvelon and Morluc did just that, with Falvelon on the inside just getting the nod. Falvelon, a 5-year-old son of Alannon, ran the straight 1000 meters out of a chute in 57.0 seconds.

Oliver and trainer Danny Bourgoure both said Falvelon may try for a three-peat. "He's had a few little hiccups" in training," Bourgoure said. "It didn't go all smoothly this year. He had a strained muscle in his back that cost us about 10 days' training. But there's no reason why he can't come back."

Added Oliver, "He loves this place and so do I."

The other top U.S. hopeful, Nuclear Debate, finished sixth under Gary Stevens. Pre-race favorite Mejiro Darling turned into the biggest Japanese disappointment of the day, fading to finish second-last.

Still, it clearly was Japan's day in Hong Kong. As the Japanese national anthem played for the third time following the Cup, TV commentator Chris Lincoln remarked wistfully: "The Japanese National Anthem. You almost know it by heart by now."

(Chart, Hong Kong Cup)

(Chart, Hong Kong Mile)

(Chart, Hong Kong Vase)

(Chart, Hong Kong Sprint)

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