By Robert Kieckhefer
Local rivalry and international challenge spice up the April 28 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup (HK-I) at Sha Tin in Hong Kong.
The local contingent of the 14-horse field drawn April 25 includes two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and California Memory, winner of the last two runnings of the Hong Kong Cup (HK-I).
Adding even more interest is English-bred Akeed Mofeed, a rising star and recent winner of the BMW Hong Kong Derby (HK-I).
The international contingent is headed by Godolphin Racing's Sajjhaa, a 6-year-old English-bred King's Best mare who came into her own this season in Dubai, capping a sparkling desert campaign with a win last month in the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I). Trained by Saeed bin Suroor, she will be carrying Godolphin's hopes to shift attention from its medication scandal in Britain back to victory on the racecourse.
Sajjhaa has been racing at 1,800 meters but bin Suroor said he sees no problem with the longer distance and held out hope the mare might visit the United States.
"She had the four runs in Dubai," bin Suroor said. "But I don't think her season is over yet. I'm sure she can run well again here in Hong Kong and perhaps go on to Europe, England, or America later in the season."
Also entered is Japan-bred Eishin Flash, who has chased international stars Orfevre and Gentildonna for the past two years but also won the Tenno Sho (Jpn-I) last October at Tokyo.
And South African trainer Mike De Kock has two entrants—Australian-bred Igugu, who disappointed with a fifth-place showing in the Dubai Duty Free, and English-bred Treasure Beach, who won the 2011 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby (Ire-I) at the Curragh and the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) at Arlington Park in 2011 but has struggled on several continents ever since.
Despite her struggles in Dubai, head traveling lad Steven Jell said De Kock has hopes for Igugu in Hong Kong.
"She's performed left-handed but her very best has been going the other way, with seven wins," he said after giving the mare light exercise under cloudy skies at Sha Tin Thursday morning. "I hope that's a little bonus for her. I think the surface will be fine, she doesn't need it soft, but some rain wouldn't bother me because I think a little fire out of the ground would be ideal."
Ambitious Dragon's trainer, Tony Millard, said earlier in the week if his 7-year-old Pins gelding runs well in the QE II, he might have a go at the May 6 Champion's Mile (HK-I) over the same course. And he said he welcomes the international runners.
"It takes the attention from us and changes things tactically," Millard said. "When it's all local horses and local jockeys, you know with a horse like this they are looking out for you and they might look to box you in or ride to beat you. But when you have a few visitors, there are others who might have a chance and have to be watched."
Ambitious Dragon has won three races over the 2,000-meter distance of the QE II. But he has not gone more than one mile in any of his five starts this season, including wins in the Longines Hong Kong mile (HK-I) last December and the March 17 Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup (HK-I).
The QE II Cup, worth HK$14 million (about $1.8 million in United States funds), is run at 2,000 meters right-handed around the Sha Tin Course, with a short run into the first of two turns. Historically, the race is pace-less and this year's edition shows promise of following that trend, making early strategic placement arguably more important than the post position.
California Memory, with Matthew Chadwick set to ride, drew the rail while Ambitious Dragon was selected post 6 under Zac Purton. Sajjhaa, with Silvestre De Sousa named, got post 8; Akeed Mofeed, partnered by Douglas Whyte, drew post 4; Igugu, with Anthony Delpech up, was assigned post 10; and Treasure Beach, with Colm O'Donoghue up, was assigned post 12.