The two American entries drew reasonably well for the Dec. 8 Longines Hong Kong International Races, but not without a little drama for King Kreesa in the Hong Kong Mile (HK-I).
The Dec. 5 barrier draw at the Sha Tin Racecourse parade ring also set up a bit of intrigue for the Longines Hong Kong Sprint (HK-I) with Japanese star Lord Kanaloa drawing the 12 gate while Hong Kong's top threat, Lucky Nine, got a relatively cozy post 5 in a race where the starting position can make a big difference.
The better-fancied U.S. hope is Little Mike, who will contest the Longines Hong Kong Cup (HK-I). Little Mike drew post 6 for the Cup, well inside reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year Military Attack in 9 and French raider Cirrus Des Aigles in gate 10.
King Kreesa, who represents the United States as a longshot in the Mile, got gate 11 in a field of 14 but only after some tension built up during the ceremony.
Trainer Jeremiah Englehart, making his first trip outside North America, was the second-last representative selected to pull a post position and only 11 and 14 were left.
"Knowing that 14 was still out there made that 11 look pretty good," Englehart said after dodging the outside gate.
Mike Smith will ride both American horses in Sunday's races.
No horse based in the United States has won at the Hong Kong International races since Val's Prince won the Cup in 1997 with Cash Asmussen riding. In 1993, Bill Shoemaker trained Glen Kate to victory in the Hong Kong Bowl, which later morphed into the Mile. No other American horse has won a race in this event.
Dale Romans, who trains Little Mike, said he's ready to right that situation. Blaming a fast early pace for the 6-year-old Spanish Steps gelding's seventh-place finish in last month's Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT), Romans said Little Mike now is ready to tackle international rivals.
"I wouldn't bring him if I didn't think he was exceptional in all aspects. He handles changes well," Romans said of the winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT) and Arlington Million (gr. IT), and this year's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) at Belmont Park.
Owner Carlos Vaccarezza watched Little Mike canter on the Sha Tin turf before the draw and commented, "He looked good out there—as good as he's looked all week. He's a versatile horse as far as distance is concerned and in how he runs his races. I hope there is a good pace in the race on Sunday as that would suit him best."
Although Little Mike was unplaced in two races in Dubai this spring, Romans said he is in better physical condition now and ready to run.
He will need to be. Cirrus Des Aigles was the world's top-rated horse at the start of 2012, according to the Longines World's Best Racehorse Ratings. While he struggled earlier in the year, he returned to form with a win in the Prix Dollar (Fr-II) and a runner-up showing in the Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot. Military Attack ended his last season with three straight wins, including two group I events and is also primed for Sunday.
Other notables in the 12-horse field for the 2,000-meter (1 1/4-mile) Cup are rising Hong Kong stars Endowing and Akeed Mofeed. That pair finished 1-2 in the local prep for the Cup. California Memory, who captured the last two runnings, is not back to defend his crown.
Despite Vaccarezza's hope for a quick pace, the Cup often is run tentatively through the early stages and can develop into a tactical race once the field hits the stretch turn.
The Mile, a one-turn event run from a chute on the backstretch, is a different matter, with plenty of time to secure position before the turn.
However, King Kreesa faces both top international rivals and the usual tough local competitors in a race won by the home team seven straight years and nine of the past 11. Glorious Days was second in this event last year but makes his first start of the season Sunday. Gold Fun has won three straight races, including the local prep for this event. Dan Excel won the Champions Mile (HK-I) at Sha Tin last spring and is rounding back into form.
The overseas contingent includes the French-trained 5-year-old mare Moonlight Cloud, who has been a winning machine in group I races but perhaps is best known for almost beating Black Caviar in the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Stakes (Eng-I) at Royal Ascot. Sky Lantern, a 3-year-old daughter of Red Clubs, comes off a win in the Sun Chariot Stakes (Eng-I) at Newmarket.
Englehart said King Kreesa, a grade III winner in the U.S., has adapted well to Hong Kong after overcoming a little "shipping fever."
"He's fine now," Englehart said before the barrier draw. "We didn't even need to do blood work this morning."
Englehart said the 4-year-old King Cugat gelding has adapted "surprisingly well" to Hong Kong racing, including the right-handed turns.
"When he turns into the straight, he gets right onto his correct lead and seems to like it," said Englehart, who got his start at Finger Lakes in upstate New York. "He's a smart horse. You'd never know he's a New York-bred," he added with a laugh.
The Sprint also has proved to be a cozy spot for local horses, with 10 of the 14 editions won by Hong Kong runners, including Lucky Nine in 2011. Lord Kanaloa came from Japan to win last year, with Lucky Nine settling for second.
Lord Kanaloa comes to Sunday's race off a victory in the Sprinters Stakes (Jpn-I) while Lucky Nine was beaten twice during a trip to Australia. The race features a short run to the turn, though, giving importance to post positions.
The outside post may force jockey Yusanari Iwata to move early with Lord Kanaloa to try to establish position.
The first of the four group I events is the 2,400-meter (about 1 1/2 miles) Longines Hong Kong Vase, featuring globetotters Red Cadeaux, Dunaden, Dandino, and Simenon; British-based filly The Fugue, who was a close second to Magician in last month's Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT); and three German horses, all with group I wins to their credit—Feuerblitz, Seismos, and Nymphea.