By Bob Kieckhefer
The Dec. 6 barrier draw provided a little added intrigue for the upcoming Longines Hong Kong International races, particularly in the $2.8 million Longines Hong Kong Cup (HK-I) where top-rated Cirrus des Aigles drew well.
Together, the four group I races Dec. 9 at Sha Tin Racecourse comprise the self-styled "World Turf Championships" and essentially wrap up the year's international competition.
Besides the 2,000-meter Cup, the all-turf program includes the $1.9 million Longines Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters, the $2.6 million Longines Hong Kong Mile and the $1.9 million Longines Hong Kong Sprint at 1,200 meters.
The Sprint also is the final leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which carries a $1 million prize that will go unclaimed this year as no horse has the chance to win the required three races in three different countries.
Cirrus des Aigles, a 6-year-old Even Top gelding, has blossomed since finishing fifth in last year's Cup, with group I wins in Dubai and in France. He finished second to Frankel in his last start but pressed that now retired and undefeated champion before succumbing in the QIPCO Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot.
For Sunday's race, Cirrus des Aigles will start from the No. 5 gate in a field of 13. With a short run into the first of two right-hand turns, jockey Olivier Peslier will have every chance to position him on or near the lead.
"Five is definitely a good draw," said trainer Corine Barande-Barbe. "It will prevent him being boxed in or having to go wide. Now it will be up to Olivier and the horse."
After several days of rain, the Sha Tin course was drying out the morning of Dec. 6 and Cirrus des Aigles put in some light work. This is the horse's fourth trip to the Hong Kong races.
Traveling lad Zoe Gargoulaud said preparations have not been easy because of the weather. "He did not have to do too much today even though he's very keen and could use a bit of work," Gargoulaud said.
Several others likely to figure in the race drew inside and outside. The French filly Giofra will start from gate No. 11 while defending champion and local favorite California Memory drew the rail. Both are likely to be held up in favor of a late run although California Memory won last year's running of the Cup by taking an uncharacteristic forward early position.
Saonois, another in a strong French delegation off victories in the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby, Fr-I) and Prix Neil (Fr-I), will break from post No. 7.
Carlton House, trained by Sir Michael Stoute for Queen Elizabeth II, drew gate No. 2. Regardless of his fate in this race, he is ticketed to move along to become the Queen's first Australian-based runner in the barn of Gai Waterhouse.
The Cup field also includes the usual list of local powerhouses, notably Irian, a German-bred runner who finished second to California Memory in the final Sha Tin prep, and Zaidan, who was third in that race.
The Sprint attracted some of the world's top contenders. With a short run down the backstretch before the single turn, the draw may cause issues.
Three of the favorites drew in the middle of the 12-horse field. The winner and runner-up in Japan's Sprinters Stakes (Jpn-I)—Lord Kanaloa and Curren Chan—are No. 6 and 8, respectively, bracketing Australian star Sea Siren.
The connections of all three horses said they are pleased with their positions in the starting gate.
Akiko Suzuki, owner of Curren Chan, added, "The strong Hong Kong horses did not get the best draws. That may bring fortune to us."
Local sprinter Lucky Nine won this race last year from gate No. 6 but this year drew an unlucky No. 12. He won the local prep for this event. Joy and Fun was second in the 2011 Sprint for the home team and third in the Al Quoz Sprint (UAE-I) on World Cup night at Meydan. He drew stall No. 1.
However, foreigners beware: Hong Kong-based horses have won nine of the last 10 runnings of the Sprint and 10 of 13 overall.
In the Mile, two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon drew gate No. 11, with only one runner to his outside. However, it's a 700-meter run down the length of the backstretch to the turn, so runners usually can sort out position.
This is another race where invaders have had tough sledding. Locals have won the last six renewals and most of the logical contenders again are based in Hong Kong.
Among them, Glorious Days (gate 3) got home first, ahead of Ambitious Dragon, in the local prep race. Xtension(gate 4) won the BMW Champions Mile (HK-I) at Sha Tin last spring and may be rounding into form.
Trainer John Size said he was happy with the draw for Glorious Days. "It gives us options and we'll see how the tempo develops," he said. But, he added, "If Ambitious Dragon puts in a big performance, he's unbeatable."
Ambitious Dragon's trainer, Tony Millard, said the No. 11 position won't matter as his horse has won from wide draws in the past.
Japan sends Sadamu Patek and Grand Prix Boss, first and second in the Mile Championshp (Jpn-I) at Kyoto in their last starts. Ireland's Gordon Lord Byron comes to Hong Kong after a victory in the 1,400-meter QATAR Prix de la Foret (Fr-I) at Longchamp.
In one of the few American connections to the program, Master of Hounds will start No. 7 in the Mile. U.S. punters will remember the British-based Kingmambo colt getting home fifth in the 2011 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), then 10th in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) He since has raced in Dubai, Turkey, and England.
The Vase has a field of 13, many with impressive international credentials.
Dunaden won the Vase last year and accounted for the BMW Caulfield Cup (Aus-I) in Australia in October, but then finished 14th in the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I) in his last outing. He will start from gate No. 2 with Craig Williams up. Sea Moon, who finished second to St Nicholas Abbey in the 2011 Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) at Churchill Downs, drew No. 3.
Joshua Tree (gate 6) won the Pattison Canadian International (Can-IT) at Woodbine in his last start. Chinchon (gate 12) won the Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sin-I) at Kranji two starts back. British filly Dancing Rain was a consistent group I performer in England last year, but after an unsuccessful trip to Japan did not race this year until she finished third in the filly and mare race on British Champions Day at Ascot in October.
Bayrir, winner of the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) at Arlington Park in August, will try to bounce back from a 10th-place showing in the QATAR Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) over heavy going at Longchamp.