Equaling the famous haul of three wins in the Hong Kong International Races last year might be a tall order, but the connections of the quintet of Japanese contenders for this year's Hong Kong races are more than hopeful of at least one race going for export across the East China Sea.
The potent Japanese challenge comprises Believe and Shonen Kampf (Hong Kong Sprint, HK-I), Admire Cozzene and Tokai Point (Hong Kong Mile, HK-I), and Eishin Preston (Hong Kong Cup, HK-I) – each one a grade I winner in Japan.
The Sprint, the lone Hong Kong international race Japan has yet to win, features Believe, possibly the most improved filly racing under the Japan Racing Association (JRA) banner.
The 4-year-old daughter of Sunday Silence made her debut in November 2000 and notched two wins from eight starts as a 3-year-old. Stronger physically in 2002, Believe landed two decent prizes during the summer. The improvement carried on into the six-furlong Centaur Stakes (Jpn-III), when she won by 4 lengths and in the process lowered the Hanshin track record by half a second to 1:07.1.
At Niigata Racecourse on Sept. 29, Believe started the even-money favorite to take the six-furlong Sprinters Stakes (Jpn-I) in which 11 went to post. Believe rewarded her followers with a brilliant performance, hitting the front 50m out and holding off grade I winners Shonan Kampf and Admire Cozzene.
Believe was given a four-furlong breeze over the uphill course at Ritto Training Center in Japan last week after which her trainer, Shigeki Trainer, noted: "She is in really good condition. She will have easier workouts at Sha Tin, I expect."
The other Japanese Sprint contender is Shonan Kampf. The 4-year-old won three of eight starts last season and, trained by Yokichi Okubo, showed improvement to trounce the Takamatsunomiya Kinen (Jpn-I) field by 3½ lengths in March on his second start of the season. After a break, he reappeared in June in the six-furlong Hakodate Sprint Stakes (Jpn-III) as favorite. However, he failed to handle the wet track and finished fourth. Okubo aimed him at the Sprinters Stakes in September. Duelling with Believe in the stretch and Admire Cozzene, he finished third, beaten three-quarters of a length.
Shonan Kampf later demonstrated his good form ahead of Hong Kong, however, by easily winning his last start, the seven-furlong Swan Stakes (Jpn-II) by 3 lengths in October.
Tokai Point from Yoshiyuki Goto's stable will challenge for a first international group I win in the Hong Kong Mile. The 6-year-old gelding used to race for Japan's National Association of Racing (NAR) and made his debut race at Morioka in May 1998. Tokai Point switched to Goto's barn in 1999, but had earned only two wins from 18 starts until late last year when he won three straight races and finished second in the Kabutoyama Kinen (Jpn-III).
This season Tokai Point captured his first graded stakes success in the Nakayama Kinen (Jpn-II) in a track record time in February. However, he was winless for nine months until defeating Eishin Preston by a neck in the Mile Championship (Jpn-I) at Kyoto in November.
Set to stand at the Shadai Stallion Station in 2003, Admire Cozzene gets ready for his final career start in the Hong Kong Mile. Trained by Mitsuru Hashida at the Ritto Training Center, the 6-year-old gray was the 1998 champion 2-year-old colt, but was winless for about three years since lifting the Asahi Hai Sansai Stakes (Jpn-I) in December 1998. After the race, Admire Cozzene fractured both hind legs and was sidelined for 19 months.
Admire Cozzene has been better than ever this season, however, landing the Tokyo Shimbun Hai in January and the Hankyu Hai (both Jpn-III) in February before finishing second to Shonan Kampf in the Takamatsunomiya Kinen. He then captured the one-mile Yasuda Kinen (Jpn-I) in June, emphatically defeating a couple of Hong Kong-based runners, Red Pepper and Jeune King Prawn, in the process. After three months off, he finished second to Believe in the Sprinters Stakes.
In his most recent start, the Mile Championship, Admire Cozzene started favorite but finished seventh, beaten 2 lengths.
The best known of the Japanese raiders, Eishin Preston returns to Sha Tin for the Hong Kong Cup. The 5-year-old son of Green Dancer earned his first grade I win in the 1999 Asahi Hai Sansai Stakes, and his first international group I triumph was the impressive victory in the Hong Kong Mile last year. The Shuji Kitahashi-trained horse finished fifth in the Nakayama Kinen (Jpn-II )over 1 1/8 miles in February as his 2002 seasonal debut before winning the Audemars Piguet QE Cup in Hong Kong in April, defeating Agnes Digital and Grandera.
Eishin Preston later reappeared in one-mile Yasuda Kinen (Jpn-I), finishing fifth, and after a four months summer vacation, finished second in the one-mile Mainichi Okan (Jpn-II) prior to an eighth-placed effort in the 1 1/4-mile Emperor's Cup (Jpn-I; Autumn). Partnered as ever by Yuichi Fukunaga, he ran a strong second in the Mile Champioship at Kyoto on Nov. 17. It is worth remembering that he arrived in Hong Kong last year on the back of an identical result.
All five Japanese horses will depart for Hong Kong on Dec. 8.