David Morgan

Chief Journalist


International travel is needed to elevate Hong Kong’s new heroes

Romantic Warrior and California Spangle are Hong Kong racing’s exciting new stars but without testing themselves offshore they will be considered just two more one-track wonders.

It feels like a long time since a Hong Kong star hit the road for an overseas Group 1 contest and after dominating the International Races at Sha Tin this past weekend, there is a sense that the time is overdue for the city’s hometown heroes to compete offshore again.

The vibe after the four Group 1 races was electric, the biggest crowd since Covid hit almost three years ago lapped up the show; and the sense of relief from Hong Kong Jockey Club staff and executives was channelled into an emotional high at witnessing three performances which, on the face of it, were ‘world class’.

Romantic Warrior’s imposing four and a half-length demolition of the Hong Kong Cup field, featuring five solid Japanese Group 1 performers, signalled obvious international scope. California Spangle’s cute defeat of Golden Sixty emphasised that there are now two top-drawer milers on the scene rather than one; and Wellington’s success in the Sprint, aside from being a triumph of preparation by trainer Richard Gibson, was no more than confirmation that he’s the best of the local speedsters, given the apparent ‘second rate’ nature of the Japanese challengers.


Romantic Warrior’s jockey James McDonald told Asian Racing Report that he had ‘no doubt’ that Romantic Warrior is a world talent, and the form seems to back up the performance, with Japan’s Danon The Kid, second in the G1 Mile Championship at Hanshin the time before, filling the runner-up spot.

“He’s so versatile, he’s very economical, he doesn’t spend a penny in the run and the other thing is that he’s got a good turn-of-foot off a good tempo or a slow tempo,” McDonald said of Romantic Warrior. “He’s easy, he does what he has to do, he’s got great condition on him, so I don’t think (travelling) is going to worry him.”

But, unlike in times past, the talk immediately after the Cup – after the initial ‘wow’ had simmered down – was not of proving his merit away from Sha Tin, rather it was that Romantic Warrior would target Hong Kong’s oft-overlooked and rarely attempted Triple Crown. The four-year-old’s owner Peter Lau is eager to take that route, which has not been attempted since Ambitious Dragon failed at the final test and that was in 2012.

A Triple Crown bid should be applauded but at the same time, it will not give much more insight as to how good Hong Kong’s emerging champion really is in an international context.

Covid travel issues since early 2020 have impacted travel in and out of Hong Kong for horses as well as humans but the reality is that a Hong Kong horse has not attempted to win a Group 1overseas since Werther finished second in the Takarazuka Kinen in June 2018, and you have to go all the way back to the ill-fated Gold-Fun in the summer of 2016 to find a bona fide top-line Hong Kong horse in Group 1 action outside of Asia.

In fact, the last time Sha Tin’s biggest stars went en masse to attack offshore majors was as long ago as 2015 when Designs On Rome led a strong team of seven to Dubai; Aerovelocity, Dan Excel, Military Attack, Lucky Nine and Rich Tapestry went to Singapore; Dominant competed during Sydney’s autumn carnival and Able Friend ventured to Royal Ascot for the Queen Anne Stakes.

Able Friend was at that time Hong Kong’s undisputed champion and his owner Cornel Li embraced Hong Kong’s ‘can-do’ mindset and took the sporting option despite the relatively paltry prize money offered for a contest of such prestige.

Able Friend galloping at Newmarket ahead of his Royal Ascot failure. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

In that spirit, Lau could perhaps look to the sporting approach taken by Ambitious Dragon’s owner Johnson Lam, who also attempted the Triple Crown but threw into the mix a shot at the G1 Dubai Turf at Meydan. ‘The Dragon’ was Hong Kong’s standout at the time; he won the Triple Crown’s first two legs, the 1600-metre Stewards’ Cup and the 2000-metre Hong Kong Gold Cup, before having an off-night in Dubai; upon his return, he was beaten in the Champions Mile, and, famously, in the final leg, the Champions & Chater Cup over 2400 metres.

In those days, owners seem to have been emboldened by the results of the previous decade, which lifted Hong Kong’s profile from eager backwater to elite racing circuit: Silent Witness, Bullish Luck, Ultra Fantasy and Fairy King Prawn were successful in Japan; Viva Pataca, Bullish Luck and Fairy King Prawn so close in Dubai, and then Vengeance Of Rain’s famous Nad Al Sheba triumph; Sacred Kingdom and Green Birdie scored in Singapore, and Cape Of Good Hope won in Britain and Australia.  

The start of the next decade saw Little Bridge win at Royal Ascot and in 2014 Amber Sky and Sterling City bagged a famous brace on Dubai World Cup night, but after Able Friend’s 2015 Ascot defeat, the appetite for overseas challenges waned and the quality of travellers out of Hong Kong diminished.

Zac Purton celebrates Royal Ascot glory aboard Little Bridge in the King's Stand Stakes. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Kwok family refused to take the risk with their dominant champion Beauty Generation, who bullied his opponents around Sha Tin, building a 10-win streak and earning record prize money thanks to the rich purses on offer; Eddie Wong ducked an overseas challenge with Hong Kong’s top stayer Exultant; and earlier this year, Stanley Chan decided against taking Golden Sixty to Japan for the Yasuda Kinen. The once emboldened now seemed cautious. 

But Ambitious Dragon’s legacy is not sullied by his Dubai defeat, nor are the memories of Able Friend’s brilliance lessened by his Ascot failure; the same can be said of two-time Hong Kong Cup winner California Memory, who raced in Howard Liang’s California Spangle red and yellow, and was beaten in Dubai and Singapore. 

The problem with not travelling, in a sports context, is that it leaves a big question mark hanging over Hong Kong’s stars. Just how good are they? It’s one thing beating up outsiders on your home track but how about putting the shoe on the other foot? And, it should be noted, the incomers in December are disadvantaged by travel and unfamiliarity at the end of a long season when the home team is just coming to a mid-season peak.

Posting fast times and high ratings figures over and over against the same opponents around Sha Tin is all well and good but can they be replicated on a foreign track against different opposition, with the rigours of international travel thrown in?

“It’s a difficult one because we don’t have too many horses of their quality at the top end here in Hong Kong,” said Zac Purton after riding California Spangle to success. “The temptation at the moment is to stay and dominate instead of throwing the travel in, so I can see both sides of the argument.”

Zac Purton and California Spangle win the Hong Kong Mile. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

The well-documented lack of depth in Hong Kong’s elite ranks is, of course, an issue. When a horse like Rich Tapestry headed to California for a historic Grade 1 win at Santa Anita, he did so because he was only about the sixth or seventh best sprinter on the Sha Tin block; Cape Of Good Hope raced frequently overseas because he was no match for Silent Witness at home. Nowadays, it’s the depth within the Japanese ranks that prompts their second tier to travel.

It is unlikely that any of the also-rans in Hong Kong at present would be able to come anywhere close to their overseas achievements. But the big names could. 

Purton believes California Spangle has the mind and the racing attributes to be competitive overseas; the HKJC’s CEO Winfired Engelbrecht-Bresges also expressed that he felt California Spangle and Romantic Warrior are the types that could handle travelling out of Hong Kong to race, but not so much the more nervous Golden Sixty. Meanwhile, Gibson was less enthusiastic about any talk of Wellington attacking foreign sprints.

After more than half a decade of Hong Kong’s best athletes staying at home, its horses once again have something to prove. There was talk of Romantic Warrior getting a rating of 124 for his win; he may be worth that figure, looking at the manner of his success, but numbers are only one aspect of measuring a horse’s status and greatness is difficult to bestow upon a horse that plays ‘flat track bully’. 

Exceptional ability proven in a variety of situations, even in defeat, defines a real ‘world class’ champion and it has been too long since Hong Kong has had a horse step out of the comfort zone and earn that kind of respect. 



    Subscribe now & get exclusive weekly content from Asian Racing Report direct to your inbox

      Expert ratings, tips & analysis for Hong Kong racing