The success of the Longines Hong Kong International Races brings good news and, potentially, bad news for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
The good news is the host's races have become an important fixture at the end of the racing season, attracting many of the world's best turf runners and spotlighting Hong Kong's ambitious racing program.
The bad news is that the races have become so competitive that it is conceivable local horses, for the first time ever, might not win even one of the four group I events Sunday, Dec. 8.
Hong Kong has never been a player in the 2,400-meters Longines Hong Kong Vase (HK-I). The locals have few chances to run that long on the Sha Tin course in the New Territories and none at the in-town Happy Valley Course, whose tight turns are surrounded by high-rise buildings.
France and England have dominated the 19 runnings of the Vase, with French horses taking nine and British seven. Hong Kong has lifted the Vase once.
English runner Dandino, coming off a nice fifth-place run in the Melbourne Cup (Aus-I), was withdrawn from the Vase Saturday with a soft tissue issue. So was Ireland's Galileo Rock, who was in the top three in this year's Epsom and Irish derbys. Still, a strong overseas contingent will contest the race with only a token force of two locals entered.
The other three races are the issue.
Locally trained horses have dominated the Longines Hong Kong Sprint (HK-I) and the Longines Hong Kong Mile (HK-I). The home team remains strong in each race this year but, in each case, one or more invaders likely will go favored.
Ten of the 14 editions of the Sprint have been won by Hong Kong horses. But last year, Japan's world-class sprinter Lord Kanaloa easily whipped defending champion Lucky Nine to snatch the crown away from Hong Kong. Lord Kanaloa is back to defend his title and has had by far a better run-up to the big race than Lucky Nine.
Hong Kong hopes are pinned on the barrier draw for the Sprint. Lucky Nine drew well in gate No. 5, while Lord Kanaloa is parked out in No. 12. The draw makes a difference in the Sprint, which has a short run to the turn. If that's too much for the Japanese invader to overcome, the race likely will be in Hong Kong's court with 10 of the 14 starters trained in the Special Administrative Region.
But if Lord Kanaloa, who is making his final start, goes out in a blaze of glory, Hong Kong hopes will turn to the Longines Hong Kong Mile (HK-I). As usual, there is plenty of local firepower in that 14-horse field as the SAR tries to hoist the trophy for the eighth straight time.
Two factors work against an extension of that string. For one, defending champion Ambitious Dragon is sidelined with physical issues. For another, the 14-horse field also includes Moonlight Cloud, the 5-year-old French mare who nearly snapped the undefeated record of Black Caviar at Royal Ascot last year, and Sky Lantern, the British 3-year-old filly who has three group I wins on her record this year.
Those distaffers likely will be the favorites although the likes of Glorious Days, Packing Whiz, Dan Excel, and Gold-Fun provide some hope for the home team. King Kreesa is the U.S.-based outsider here but could catch a favorable pace scenario to play a role.
If nothing good happens for Hong Kong in the Mile, it all comes down to the Longines Hong Kong Cup, at 2,000 meters. "We will win the Cup," HKJC's CEO, Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, said before Saturday's (Dec. 7) annual sale.
The CEO did not specify which of the six Hong Kong horses in the field of 12 will emerge to save the day. It will not be California Memory, who won the last two editions of the race. He, too, is away with physical problems. Still, there are several who could turn the trick with Military Attack primary among them. Military Attack is the reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year and ended last season with springtime victories in the Audemars Piguet QE II (HK-I) over the course and the Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sing-I) at Kranji. But he has two starts and no wins so far this year, despite showing progress at rounding into form for trainer John Moore.
Akeed Mofeed and Endowing have some claims among the other locals. But they will face the likes of French star Cirrus De Aigles, who already has rounded into form after a poor start to his year, and Little Mike, who won the 2012 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) and this year's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT).
Engelbrecht-Bresches said he is not troubled by the thought his club's members could be shut out Sunday "for the first time ever."
"We want to be a place where people can come and feel it is a level playing field," he said.
And, he added with a laugh, a shutout "might encourage our owners to buy better horses."
The latter comment was appropriately timed as HKJC members, within the following two hours, dropped US$8,344,080 for 16 horses purchased by the club and aggregated for the annual sale.
The sale topper, at US$967,243, was a 3-year-old Australian-bred gelding by Exceed and Excel out of the Dehere mare Galapagos Girl. The chestnut was purchased by the club at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale and sold to Tse Kwok Fai.
Average price for the 16 lots was US$551,505 and the median was US$496,518. That compares with an average for 16 lots at the March sale of US$382,818 and a median of US$354,610.