The Longines Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) have come a long way since 1988 when there was only one race – the Hong Kong Cup – and the only overseas entries invited were from Malaysia and Singapore. Today the HKIR at Sha Tin Race Course is a four-race world event famous for its hospitality to horses and their connections and the mammoth purses offered – HK $83 million ($10.7 million USD) is at stake for the quartet of Grade 1 turf races.
This year entries hail from seven jurisdictions to make up the fields for what is now known collectively as the “Turf World Championships.” A total of 33 Group 1/Grade 1 champions have been shipped to Hong Kong to duel with the local contingent for some of the biggest prizes in racing.
Hong Kong Cup
Free Eagle has been getting the heavy share of pre-race wagering, dropping his odds to 3/1 at Irish bookmaker Paddy Power. This will be the 4-year old Irish star’s farewell to racing as he will be retired to the Irish National Stud after his Hong Kong Cup run. The Moyglare Stud Farm champion was a well-beaten sixth in the Prix De l’Arc de Triomphe in October but is dropping back to his preferred ten furlongs at Sha Tin on Sunday, December 13.
Defending champion Designs on Rome was installed as the early favorite but his backing has slipped as the five-year old gelding has struggled in 2015. Three out-of-the-money finishes have followed three straight trips to the winner’s circle, beginning with last year’s short head win in the Cup. The 2013/14 Hong Kong Horse of the Year is heading to post at 9/2.
Another Irish-bred, Chinese-based horse, Military Attack, has garnered the most betting support leading up to the day’s richest event. The seven-year old veteran impressed bettors with a win in November in the Grade 2 Jockey Gold Cup. This is the fourth start in the Hong Kong Cup for the son of Oratorio and Almaaseh and it has gone better each time – fifth, fourth, second. Punters are hoping that trend continues and Military Attack has been bet down to 7/1 from 10/1.
Japanese connections are sending a record 10 horses to Sha Tin for the Turf Championships. Hideaki Fujiwara’s Staphanos is the most promising entry in the Cup. The four-year old colt’s odds have slipped to 16/1 so value bettors can cash in if the U. Carrot Farm entry can claim his first win at this distance and in this level of company.
Hong Kong Mile
Able Friend, the Australian-bred sired by 2004 European Champion Two-Year-Old Sharmadal, is a short 11/8 favorite going into the Hong Kong Mile showcase. And why not? The six-year old gelding has blossomed into the world’s top-rated miler and won this race last year. After a string of six straight victories Able Friend, who is the highest internationally rated Hong Kong racehorse ever, has stumbled twice in recent outings giving hope to the likes of G1 Yasuda Kinen and G1 Mile Championship winner Maurice whose odds have plummeted from 6/1 to 7/2 as race day approaches. The talented Japanese import will be taking his first swing at Able Friend in the Mile.
Devotees of girl power will want to take a look at the Baron Edouard De-Rothschild’s Esoterique who was enjoying a fine five-year old campaign before struggling home 7th in the Breeder’s Cup at Keeneland. No filly has captured the Hong Kong Mile since Sunline in 2000 and the five-year old mare’s odds have crept up to 8/1 since Kentucky, attracting the attention of value players counting on a rebound performance.
On the other hand, the Breeder’s Cup experience was a good one for Irish racer Mondialiste, who finished a strong second to Tepin in the Breeder’s Cup Mile after three wins this summer, including the prestigious Woodbine Mile. The Sha Tin track features only one turn – like Woodbine – and not two as Mondialiste raced around in Keeneland to further encourage backers of the David O’Meara-trained horse at 12/1.
Hong Kong Vase
Another returning champion to the HKIR is Flintshire in the 1.5-mile Hong Kong Vase. Winding up his five-year old season, the entry from Prince Khalid Abdullah has been remarkably consistent with ten consecutive in-the-money finishes and has reached the finish line no worse than second only once since June of 2014. Flintshire will go off at 13/8 ahead of a competitive field that includes Grade 1 stakes winners Highland Reel (5/1), Cannock Chase (11/2), and the New Zealand-bred Preferment (12/1)
Three-year old local favorite Ming Dynasty has enjoyed a successful rookie campaign with four wins in five attempts, including the Grade 2 Prix du Conseil de Paris last time out in October. This is his first time tangling with older horses but Ming Dynasty has wrangled solid support at 15/2 heading into the Vase.
Long time observers of the HKIR will no doubt welcome back Cirrus des Aigles who will be going to post for a remarkable sixth time in the championships. Trainer Corine Barande-Barbe has not sent the old French campaigner out in the Vase since his debut in 2009, competing instead in the shorter and more glamorous Cup. The best Cirrus des Aigles has been able to do at Sha Tin was third in 2013 and backers of the nine-year old gelding will be rewarded with plump 16/1 odds should this year finally be the time.
Hong Kong Sprint
The Hong Kong Sprint has been the dominion of local talent so far this century with Chinese horses claiming top honors in ten of the past 13 renewals over six furlongs. This year’s event appears to be wide open as last year’s champion, Aerovelocity, will be on the sidelines and top sprinter Chautauqua has not made the trip from Australia.
The early favorites have proven to be the leaders of the home track contingent – Gold-Fun (7/4) and last year’s runner-up Peniaphobia (4/1). The locals appear to have the most to fear from Japanese shipper Straight Girl who finished third in the Hong Kong Sprint last year and as a six-year old in 2015 has won her first two Grade 1 stakes ever on her native turf. Her supporters hope she can continue her improvement away from the Land of the Rising Sun and have bet her down to 13/2.