Japan weighs in with record 10 at Sha Tin
Japanese horsemen have sent 10 horses to Hong Kong this year for the gala LONGINES Hong Kong International Races. Four feature G1 events make up the International Races, which sees scores of top-level horses fly in to Hong Kong from all over the world. The same number made the trip from Japan last year, but was reduced by one after a last-minute withdrawal. If all horses make their gates come Sunday, Dec. 13 at Sha Tin Racecourse, this year will mark Japan’s biggest team yet to Hong Kong.
First up on the Sunday card at Sha Tin is the 2,400-meter Hong Kong Vase, Race No. 4 with a local post time of 2 p.m. There are no participants from Japan in the Vase this year.
The Sprint is next and will see three runners from Japan start –Straight Girl, Sakura Gospel and Mikki Isle. The 1,200-meter Sprint is Race No. 5 and gets under way at 2:40 p.m. Total prize of HK$18.5 million makes it the richest 1,200-meter turn event in the world. It is also the final leg of the Global Sprint Challenge. For long a Hong Kong stronghold, Japan’s Lord Kanaloa managed to wrestle the prize away in both 2012 and 2013. Last year saw the winner’s share stay at home again, with victory by Hong Kong’s Aerovelocity. This year six international G1 winners are slated to be among the final lineup. Hong Kong’s Gold-Fun is the top-rated runner of the field and running a close race with Straight Girl and Peniaphobia for lowest odds.
Straight Girl returns to the Sprint after her third-place finish last year. Now 6 years old, the daughter of Fuji Kiseki has captured two G1 races since the last Sprint. Those were the Victoria Mile at Tokyo in May and her last start, the Sprinters Stakes, on Oct. 4. One of three horses now in Hong Kong trained by Hideaki Fujiwara, Straight Girl worked on the all-weather on Wednesday at Sha Tin, where she “took things easy” after having worked on turf the previous day, according to assistant trainer Kazuo Fujiwara. “She looks well,” Fujiwara said. Keita Tosaki is to have the ride.
The 7-year-old Sakura Gospel returned to racing in October following a last-place finish in the G1 Yasuda Kinen in June. He showed himself in fine form with a second in the Sprinters Stakes. On Wednesday, he worked for a lap and 400 meters on the turf. Assistant trainer Isao Futaguchi said the horse was looking “well” though he was shying a bit. “I worked him on the turf to get a feel of the surface. It seems OK to me and it was good for him to get acquainted with the turf course.” Sakura Gospel is expected to be paired with local rider Zachary Purton.
Mikki Isle, a 4-year-old son of Deep Impact, is trained by veteran Hidetaka Otonashi. Mikki Isle won the G1 NHK Mile Cup last year at Tokyo but has seen the winner’s circle only once in his eight starts since. His only win was in the G2 Mainichi Broadcast. Swan Stakes last autumn in his first start following a summer layoff. This year, he finished second in the G3 Hankyu Hai in March and ran third in G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen. Last time out, Mikki Isle was fourth 0.2 seconds off Straight Girl in the 1,200-meter Sprinters Stakes. On Wednesday at Sha Tin, the colt was given an easy gallop and schooled in the parade ring. His rider Yusuke Hirai said he was, “looking well and his appetite is increasing, which means he is in good form.” Hirai said the colt was “relaxed” and was nonchalant in the paddock ring. Riding Sunday will be Suguru Hamanaka.
After a one-race break in the action at Sha Tin comes the Hong Kong Mile at 3:50 p.m. Hong Kong time. The Mile’s total purse is HK$23 million. Japan’s Hat Trick was victorious in 2005. Since then, however, Hong Kong horses have maintained a steely grip on the winner’s circle. This year sees a trio from Japan in the lineup – Fiero, Maurice, and Danon Platina. The field boasts seven international G1 winners, including the top rated Able Friend from Hong Kong. It is Japan’s Maurice, however, that is looking to scoop top billing at the betting windows. Maurice is pulling ahead of Able Friend in early betting. Fiero is vying with Esoterique and Contentment for the next trio of top picks.
Maurice, from the stable of Noriyuki Hori, Japan’s current leading trainer, is a 4-year-old colt by Screen Hero. He is on a five-race winning streak that includes the G3 Lord Derby Trophy Challenge, the G1 Yasuda Kinen (both run in the spring over the mile), and the G1 Mile Championship last time out, on Nov. 22. Wednesday he had an easy gallop on the all-weather track in an attempt to “relax him,” said assistant trainer Masanori Watanabe. Watanabe says the colt has “not yet settled into his new surroundings.” He was to work on turf Thursday and gallop Friday. Ryan Moore is to have the ride on Sunday.
The 3-year-old colt Danon Platina took the top 2-year-old race in Japan the G1 Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes last December and has had only three starts this year. He had great success over the mile early in his career and returned to the distance last time out on Oct. 24, when he won the G3 Fuji Stakes at Tokyo. Danon Platina worked on turf Wednesday for the first time at Sha Tin. Work rider Toshio Fujii said: “He settled in well. He was a bit tense yesterday but seemed to be more relaxed this morning.” Plans were to do a fast gallop on turf on Thursday. Masayoshi Ebina will be the jockey on Sunday.
Fiero, also from the stable of Hideaki Fujiwara, is a 6-year-old by Deep Impact. A highly consistent horse, he has only figured out of the top three spots in four of his 17 starts thus far. Sixth in the Hong Kong Mile last year, Fiero has had a successful year, albeit a winless one. He came third in the G2 Yomiuri Milers Cup following his return from Hong Kong, then ran fourth in the Yasuda Kinen. After a layoff over the summer, he finished second in the G2 Swan Stakes and then again ran second in the Mile Championship, last time out on Nov. 22 at the right-handed Kyoto track. Assistant trainer Kazuo Fujiwara said Fiero, being accustomed to the surroundings at Sha Tin, “has settled in well and is relaxed compared to last time he came here. He has had only four starts this season but everything has gone as planned for this coming Sunday.” Fujiwara added, “This year’s Hong Kong Mile has a strong field to beat, but (Fiero) has maintained good condition and he is ready to compete well.” Mirco Demuro, just off a win of the G1 Champions Cup at Chukyo, is to have the ride in the Mile.
Last up on the star-studded Sunday is the day’s highlight, the prestigious Hong Kong Cup, with a total purse of HK$25 million making it the richest turf race in the world run over 2,000 meters. Hong Kong runners have captured the race for four years straight, with Designs On Rome the winner last year. The last winner from Japan was Agnes Digital in 2001. The Cup has a 4:30 p.m. post time and will see, amid nine international G1 winners, Japan’s biggest representation, a foursome comprising A Shin Hikari, Satono Aladdin, Staphanos and Nuovo Record. Last year’s champion Designs On Home is back to defend his title. He shares top rating with Ireland’s Free Eagle. The toughest competition in the Cup is expected to focus around expected top picks Designs On Rome and Free Eagle. Designs On Rome, a 5-year-old gelding trained by John Moore, also has designs on becoming only the second horse to win back-to-back Cups. This year’s Prince of Wales Stakes winner Free Eagle is looking to cap his career with a Cup win. Also seen as considerable threats to Designs On Rome are Military Attack, Nuovo Record, Blazing Speed and Criterion.
Nuovo Record is a 4-year-old filly by Heart’s Cry. Also highly consistent, she has finished no further back than sixth in her five starts this year. Those include a win of the G2 Nakayama Kinen and a second-place finish in the G2 Sankei Sho All Comers up against male horses, as well as a second in the 2,200-meter G2 Queen Elizabeth II Cup last time out on Nov. 15 at Kyoto. This week in work, rider Kazuyoshi Aita said the filly was cool in the parade ring, but “full of energy” and expected to have a fast gallop on Thursday. Ryan Moore is partnered with her for the main event.
Another son of Deep Impact is the 4-year-old A Shin Hikari, who has had great success through the G2 level. Last time out, he took on his first G1 with the 2,000-meter Tenno Sho (Autumn) and finished ninth. Trainer Masanori Sakaguchi, who arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday, said, “He has settled in well and seemed to have no issues walking around the parade ring. He is eating well.” Yutaka Take, who will ride on Sunday, was to take the reins for fast work on the turf course Thursday.
The Deep Impact-sired Satono Aladdin, also 4 years old, ran fourth last time out in the G1 Mile Championship on Nov. 22. Though he has been given mostly races in the 1,600-1,800-meter range, Satono Aladdin has won twice over 2,000 meters, albeit at lower levels. Work rider Mitsuharu Morisawa said the colt was “full of beans” this week in work. “He moved nicely on the turf and seemed to cope with the surface. He is eating well and settling in well.” New Zealand rider James McDonald, who is also riding in the International Jockeys’ Championships at Happy Valley is expected to have the ride at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Staphanos, also by Deep Impact, finished second in the 2,000-meter Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Sha Tin in April. He was given only two races hence. The first, the G2 Mainichi Okan, saw him return after nearly six months to run seventh only 0.5 seconds off the winner. He then ran second in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) on Nov. 1 over the difficult Tokyo 2,000 meters. He will be partnered with Keita Tosaki, who has ridden him in his last two starts. Tosaki galloped him over the turf course on Wednesday and clocked 52.8 seconds. Tosaki remarked that “the grass surface seems to be somewhere between the Japanese turf and a Bermuda grass type of turf. He handled the surface well and moved nicely.”
In the past, Japan has won eight Hong Kong International Races and tallied five seconds and six thirds. Three of Japan's wins have come in the Hong Kong Cup (Fujiyama Kenzan in 1995, Midnight Bet in 1998 and Agnes Digital in 2001), two in the Mile (Eishin Preston in 2001 and Hat Trick in 2005), one in the Vase (Stay Gold in 2001). Lord Kanaloa turned in back-to-back wins of the Sprint in 2012 and 2013.
Straight Girl topped last year’s participants from Japan with her third in the Sprint. Grand Prix Boss also took third in the Mile. Only one of the total nine horses from Japan last year turned in a double-digit finish.
This year's Hong Kong International Races will be broadcast on the JRA's racing channel Green Channel on Sunday, Dec. 13 from 4:45 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. They will also be shown at selected JRA racetracks and two offtrack betting outlet (WINS) at about 5 p.m. on raceday after the end of races in Japan. The races will be broadcast at the Tokyo, Nakayama, Kyoto, and Hanshin racecourses, as well as at the WINS Dotombori in Osaka, WINS Sapporo and WINS Himeji.
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