By Tracy Gantz
Nail-biting finishes defined this year's Cathay Pacific Hong Kong International Races Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse. France's Pride closed out her career stylishly by holding off the closing Admire Moon by a short head in the Hong Kong Cup (HK-I) after Great Britain's Collier Hill edged Kastoria by a nose in the Hong Kong Vase (HK-I) and Hong Kong's The Duke narrowly lasted by a head over Armada in the Mile (HK-I). The only daylight finish occurred when Hong Kong's Absolute Champion ran away with the Hong Kong Sprint (HK-I), 4 1/4 lengths ahead of his nearest rival, Silent Witness.The International Races, all turf events, lost two of their favorites in Ouija Board and Takeover Target. Great Britain's Ouija Board, winner of this year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), developed splint soreness in her left foreleg Saturday and was withdrawn from the Vase that afternoon. Australia's Takeover Target was ordered scratched by the Hong Kong Jockey Club stewards after the gelding failed a final blood test Sunday morning. He showed traces of 17-alpha-hydroxyprogesterone hexanoate, which owner-trainer Joe Janiak said was administered to Takeover Target seven weeks ago in Japan to help him travel.Ouija Board's defection left the starring role to N P Bloodstock Ltd.'s Pride, winner of the Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Newmarket and second in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) at Longchamp. Under regular jockey Christophe Lemaire, the 6-year-old daughter of Peintre Celebre -- Specificity, by Alleged, moved between horses on the final turn of the HK$20 million Cup, swung to the outside, and charged home strongly. Admire Moon put in a late run to just miss, with local hero Vengeance of Rain, the 2005 Cup winner, third. Pride covered the distance of 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) in 2:01.60."We had a very good race until the last corner," Lemaire said. "The filly was very relaxed, but unfortunately I had to come a little bit early for her. We know she has a very good turn of foot, but she's not used to taking the lead like this in the last furlong. She's a very special filly. She has a big fighting spirit, and she really deserved this big win."Alain de Royer-Dupre trains Pride for Sven Hanson and his wife, Carina Klingberg Hanson, a Swedish couple who own a stud farm in Normandy, France. They bred Pride, who will now be retired as a broodmare. The Hansons are mulling over a short list of stallions for her.Local runner Hello Pretty, who finished eighth, went off as the 3.3-1 favorite, with Pride the second choice at 7-2.Viva Pataca finished fourth, followed by Art Trader, Satwa Queen, Dia de la Novia, Hello Pretty, Alexander Goldrun, Musical Way, Growl and High Intelligent.In the HK$14 million Vase, Collier Hill and Kastoria met again, Kastoria having gotten the better of Collier Hill in the July 1 Curragh Cup in Ireland. This time it was Collier Hill's turn, as the 8-year-old gelded son of Dr Devious -- Polar Queen, by Polish Precedent, kept Kastoria at bay to win under jockey Dean McKeown, with Shamdala in third, one length behind. At 2,400 meters (about 1 1/2 miles), the Vase is the longest of the International Races, and Collier Hill, who went off at 12-1, ran the distance in 2:27.10. Favored Admire Main finished eighth."It was touch and go two days ago as to whether he'd run, as he was dehydrated," said Collier Hill's trainer, Alan Swinbank. "It was only yesterday he'd come right."Co-owners Russell Hall and Richard Crowe attended the running of the Vase, while the third owner, David Abell, was absent. Hall bought the British-bred gelding as a 3-year-old, and Collier Hill received his first lessons from trainer John Gosden.Japan was represented by fourth-place finisher Song of Wind. Maraahel finished fifth, followed by Egerton, Scorpion, Admire Main and Saturn.The Duke finally won the HK$16 million Mile in his third attempt. Third in 2004 and second last year, he gave local jockey Olivier Doleuze his first group I win in Hong Kong by defeating the favorite, fellow Hong Kong runner Armada, in 1:33.40, just one-tenth of a second off the 23-year track record. Italian entry Ramonti finished third. The sole U.S. representative in the International Races, Rebel Rebel, finished eighth under jockey Edgar Prado."We planned his campaign so that this was his fourth race, as he always seems to win on his fourth start each year," said Caspar Fownes, The Duke's trainer.Eddie Junior Yau owns The Duke, a 7-year-old gelded Australian-bred son of Danehill -- Mer Du Sud, by Bluebird.Ramonti ran third, followed by Bullish Luck, Linngari, Joyful Winner, Floral Pegasus, Rebel Rebel, Sir Ernesto, Russian Pearl, Bowman's Crossing, Dance In The Mood, Dave's Best) and Mustameet (14)The HK$12 million Sprint rounded out the four International Races. The Sprint's distance was increased this year from 1,000 meters (about 5 furlongs) to 1,200 meters (about 6 furlongs). Sentiment was with Silent Witness, a Hong Kong star who won his 17th straight race in 2005 to eclipse the modern-day mark shared by Citation, Cigar, and Hallowed Dreams. Even past his prime, Silent Witness was able to run second in this year's Sprint, which he won in 2004. But he was no match for Absolute Champion, who stormed to the lead from the middle of the 13-horse field to win with authority.Brett Prebble piloted Absolute Champion, and they stopped the timer in 1:07.80, breaking the track record by three-tenths of a second. Absolute Champion had set that mark in October. Benbaun finished third."It would have been pretty hard to say that he could have improved after his last run when he broke the track record, but somehow he's done it," said trainer David Hall.Originally, Absolutely Champion was not invited to compete in the Sprint, being on the reserve list."I was very disappointed that he was not selected for the race in the first place," Hall said. "I thought there were no ifs and buts about breaking a track record, but he's more than proved that now."Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Wong Ming Chak own Absolute Champion. The 5-year-old gelding was bred in Australia and is by Marauding -- Beauty Belle, by Ideal Planet.A crowd of 51,230 attended the International Races, and the total wagering reached HK$930,663,026.