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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is having to look beyond its first-choice invitees for its International Raceday but a rise in initial entries after two years of Covid suggests things should be better again next year.
It’s looking a lot like next month’s international races at Sha Tin will be another Hong Kong-Japan mash-up, with just a little Germanic quality thrown in and a mild twist of Ballydoyle as usual.
While the expected Japanese contingent looks strong – appealingly so – barely a scraping of the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s first choice invitees from Europe will be landing at Chek Lap Kok airport the first week in December, and Australian interest appears to be minimal.
Of the 25 overseas horses the HKJC took the unusual step of announcing as being invited back on 28 October, ten were trained in Japan and two in the US. But of the 13 Australian and European-trained invitees, only Germany’s top-class Mendocino is confirmed, while any or all of Stone Age, Broome (slated for the Japan Cup too) and Order Of Australia (not on the aforementioned invited list) are being prepared for a probable tilt by Aidan O’Brien: all others are either ruled out or have doubts hanging over them, including Ballydoyle’s Tuesday.
Deauville Legend is ‘very unlikely’ to be taking his Melbourne Cup form to the Vase, trainer James Ferguson told Asian Racing Report, while Jean-Pierre Gauvin said by phone that Iresine is already ‘in a field’ for a couple of months enjoying downtime; William Knight’s Sir Busker is ‘not going’ to the Cup; crack mare Dreamloper, a broodmare prospect, just sold for big money at Keeneland to Katsumi Yoshida while Saffron Beach, another mare with high breeding value, will sell at Tattersalls December Mares’ Sale on November 29, leaving her participation in the balance, and Kinross was declared doubtful for the Mile after his Breeders’ Cup run.
As for the Sprint invitees, American star Golden Pal’s disappointing Breeders’ Cup seems to have been his last race as he has a box ready for him at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky; Australia’s star sprinter Nature Strip is another enjoying paddock rest, Eduardo is not expected to travel north, and Everest winner Giga Kick’s trainer Clayton Douglas has been reported as outlining the Lightning Stakes and Newmarket Handicap as his next targets.
The Everest winner Giga Kick won't be coming to Hong Kong. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)
Interest in this year’s December Group 1 races among those the HKJC deemed its first picks from Europe and Australia has been a degree or two chillier than lukewarm. The issuing of such a list for perhaps the first time seems to have been a pointless exercise, especially so given that the Club has been known to court horses right up to the wire that don’t accept, while others that do want to race sit at home waiting hopefully for a late invitation.
To be fair, though, in terms of attracting the best horses possible, the Club is working from a tough spot. After two years of Covid, the loud message emanating from the city about Hong Kong being ‘Open for business’ is only part way accurate. In reality, it is in the awkward, early stage of a limited first phase re-entry into what the rest of the world has called normality for almost a year now.
On the plus side the dreaded seven-day quarantine for travellers on arrival has gone and the Hong Kong government has made life easier for arrivals, including visiting horsemen, with a process that requires only three days of monitoring rather than quarantine.
But the new way still requires pre-arrival testing and the HKJC, by now well-acquainted with what measures are needed to keep the sport rolling, also requires participants to pass a rapid antigen test (RAT) before accessing the racecourses for trackwork and a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for race meetings.
Hong Kong still has relatively strict Covid protocols compared to the rest of the world. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)
Those factors, albeit more palatable than what was endured in the past two years, are another layer of worry and procedure that travelling trainers, staff and owners – most of whom haven’t even had to wear a face mask since early this year – must deal with on top of the usual uncertainty of flying a thoroughbred to an alien environment.
There is no debating that Hong Kong at the end of the year is one of the sport’s highlights: it has produced many classic showdowns and attracted genuine top line stars from overseas. It has been an exotic and lucrative attraction for European raiders for 30 years.
But, on the whole, its place in the calendar means that it is also often an afterthought. Horses like Doctor Dino, Jim And Tonic and Highland Reel came to target the fixture after proving adept at handling the travel, the environment and the racing style; but for every one of those targeted ‘specialists’ there has been more horses like Saonois, Moonlight Cloud and Free Eagle, pointed east for one last dance beyond their primary autumn targets at Longchamp or the Breeders’ Cup.
While focusing on the entries can obscure the reality, it is worth noting that overseas entries this year showed an upturn that must have pleased the HKJC management. The three years pre-Covid (2017-2019) brought an average of 204 overseas entries per year (including any multiple race entries per horse); for the three Covid years (2020-2022) that average dropped to 155, with a long-time low of only 133 overseas entries last year; but this year’s initial free entry stage attracted 182 entries
The real measure though is in how many top-class horses show up. Last year’s HKIR, hindered by travel and quarantine restrictions on incoming participants, was low on numbers on the day for a second year. But it did attract nine runners from Europe and 12 from Japan, including high-profile Group 1 winners Pyledriver and Loves Only You.
Bearing in mind the Mile Championship and Japan Cup are still to come, the talk out of Japan is that its classy cohort this time could feature Panthalassa, Glory Vase, Stunning Rose, Danon The Kid, Jack d’Or, Lei Papale, Danon Scorpion, Resistencia, Naran Huleg, Gendarme and Meikei Yell. And Highclere Australia might yet get there with its Caulfield Cup hero Durston.
There will be a few twists before the final fields are announced but right now most first-pick Euros seem settled in for winter at home. That looks like leaving the races a touch light from that quarter, but on the bright horizon, the Club will be eyeing the hoped-for rewards of working through two years of difficulties to safeguard its big day’s international flavour nonetheless.
This time next year, when Covid measures will likely be a distant memory in Hong Kong, that’s when the HKIR will be fully open for business.
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