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Is this the year the overseas big hitters should target the Hong Kong Sprint?

Some of the world’s top sprinters have the option to take on Hong Kong’s shallow sprint division in December but they might want to weigh up Sunday’s Premier Bowl first.

By the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s own admission, Hong Kong’s elite horse ranks are thin; its famous sprint division in particular is depleted, without a proven world class star and lacking depth. So after Wednesday’s release of 35 possible overseas-trained candidates for December’s G1 Hong Kong Sprint, a good number of owners might be thinking perhaps this is the year to go and bag the prize. But is it? 

The real big hitters in that extended line-up are Nature Strip, Eduardo and Giga Kick from Australia, and Golden Pal and Campanelle from the United States, and the HKJC would love to snag any one of them. But it is no secret that the first stage list has more improbable big-name runners than probable, that’s the nature of the ‘entries’ game year after year; it’s as much an exercise in ‘look at us’ as it is which horses will actually run.

It has already been reported that Golden Pal will likely retire to stud after the Breeders’ Cup and trainer Chris Waller has made a statement about Nature Strip’s three-race spring, the importance of spacing the champion’s races to extend his career, all of which suggests the world’s top-rated speedsters won’t be rocking up at Sha Tin. Minds can change, of course.

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Craig Williams and Giga Kick win the $15 million Everest. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

But beating Hong Kong sprinters on their own turf is tough, even in ‘weak’ years. Americans that have tried haven’t fared well at Sha Tin but Campanelle, a well-travelled filly with global-minded owners, would be the type that might take advantage of a weakened home team. 

Australians pride themselves on their speed horses but while Australian breds are often key protagonists in the Sprint, it is 21 years since an Australian-trained horse succeeded; then again, the best from down under rarely make the journey north in December due to lucrative prizes at home, heading in off a tough spring, and the imposing record of 16 wins for Hong Kong in the past 20 editions. 

But with the recent G1 Sprinters Stakes suggesting Japan’s sprinters are also a moderate crew, perhaps some of those big names will take up the challenge this time. They might want to heed Sunday’s Premier Bowl first. 

The race has, over the past decade, proven to be a good indicator not only of the health of Hong Kong’s sprint ranks, but also of how the Hong Kong Sprint itself might play out relative to overseas raiders.  

Go back ten years and Cerise Cherry won the Bowl rated 105 in a field of 11 that had an average Hong Kong rating of 111. Captain Sweet was top-rated at 120: it was hardly a vintage. When it came to the Hong Kong Sprint two months later, the eight home runners had an average domestic rating of 118.6 and the previous year’s winner Lucky Nine was top-rated at 125: Japan’s great sprinter Lord Kanaloa won the race.

One year later, in 2013, it was even more stark for the Hong Kong team. Sterling City won the Premier Bowl rated 111 and the field of 12 went in with an average rating of just 108.4. Ten Hong Kong runners then went into the Hong Kong Sprint, but none saw Lord Kanaloa for dust when Yasunari Iwata hit the turbo. The Irish sprinter Sole Power took second, five lengths behind.

The division recovered the following year and a golden period for Hong Kong’s sprinters ensued. Top-notchers Aerovelocity, Peniaphobia, Mr Stunning, Gold-Fun, Lucky Bubbles and Beat The Clock, supported ably by the likes of Amber Sky, DB Pin, Ivictory and Rich Tapestry, restored pride.  

But fast forward and the 2019 Premier Bowl – with only eight runners – sent out a signal that once again all was not well in the local sprint ranks: the runners went in with a five-year-low average rating of 115.6. Come December, though, Beat The Clock, Hot King Prawn, Aethero and Mr Stunning joined the fray to paper over the cracks.

By the following year, however, Beat The Clock, Aethero and Mr Stunning were off the scene for good, leaving Hot King Prawn as the best of the rest. What ensued was a 2020 Premier Bowl field of only six runners and an average rating of 113.8; the ten home contenders (excluding Classique Legend) in that year’s Hong Kong Sprint had an average Hong Kong rating of 112.8: sure enough, Japan’s Danon Smash took the spoils.

Things only got worse last year in what has to be seen as the Hong Kong Sprint’s nadir. In an all Hong Kong-Japan affair, four horses fell: Japan’s leading hope Pixie Knight was among them and both Amazing Star and Naboo Attack were injured fatally; out of that carnage, Sky Field skipped clear and won for Hong Kong, with Japan’s Resistencia second.

Sky Field had a Hong Kong rating of 119 at the time and the average rating of the nine local runners in the field was a mediocre 114.8. That followed a 12-runner Premier Bowl in which the field’s average rating was a stark 107.4, lower even than that 2013 edition that preceded Lord Kanaloa’s wide-margin Hong Kong Sprint win. Racing is full of ‘what ifs’ but the thought that, barring the fall, Pixie Knight might have emulated the great one is tantalising.

Silvestre de Sousa combined with Lucky Sweynesse for an impressive opening day victory. (Photo by HKJC)

Sky Field scores at Sha Tin. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)

That all brings us to Sunday’s race and Wellington, Hong Kong’s top-rated sprinter on a mark of 123, a rating that would have had him sixth or seventh pick in the division four or five years ago. The field of 12 has an average rating of 113.1, still the second lowest in eight seasons.

Yet all of that brings optimism for the locals. Wellington has won his last three starts; weak editions of Group 1 and 2 races they may have been but he has done nothing wrong in the winning and he has the scope to prove himself better again this season.

And the line-up also includes the emerging Lucky Sweynesse – rated 112 – a winner of six from eight moving up through the grades, as well as Cordyceps Six, winner of five from eight last term, rounding out with the G3 Sha Tin Vase.

The likeness to the 2014 Premier Bowl, when the HKJC, as now, talked about a transition period, is compelling. That year proved to be a turning point for that sub-par sprinting cohort after Lord Kanaloa’s Hong Kong Sprint domination. The field of 11 for the Bowl back then went in with an average rating of 112.8; Able Friend topped the weights rated 124, and an emerging sprinter by the name of Aerovelocity went into the race rated 113 having won the previous season’s Sha Tin Vase, no less. 

Aerovelocity’s emergence lifted the ranks and the rest, as they say, is history. While it might be stretching it to say that almost the exact same scenario will transpire this time, the similarities are intriguing. If history really does repeat, then perhaps this is not the year to take on the Hong Kong sprinters after all.   

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