Japan rules Hong Kong turf with Mile, Cup victories
A Shin Hikari
Straight Girl (left), Mikki Isle (right)
In Hong Kong on Sunday, Dec. 13, the turf belonged to Japan, as its biggest team yet captured two of Sha Tin Racecourse’s four Grade I feature races that make up the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races (HKIR). It was a heady day indeed for Japanese horsemen and racing fans, as Maurice triumphed in the HK$23 million Hong Kong Mile and, next up, A Shin Hikari and Nuovo Record pulled off a one-two finish in the day’s grand finale, the HK$25 million Hong Kong Cup.
The day drew a record crowd to Sha Tin Racecourse for Hong Kong’s biggest day of racing. Fifty-three runners went to the post this year. Twenty-nine of them were international Grade 1 winners and the Japan contingent boasted 10 runners, flown in to participate in three of the features -- the Hong Kong Sprint, the Hong Kong Mile and the Hong Kong Cup.
The first win for Japan came in the third feature run Sunday – the Hong Kong Mile. The Noriyuki Hori-trained Maurice ended a decade-long drought for Japan when he beat local star and short favorite Able Friend in a stretch battle.
Ryan Moore gave the 4-year-old son of Screen Hero a picture-perfect ride and helped bring a nine-year winning streak by Hong Kong horses to a screeching halt.
“I was a little worried about him today, with him travelling and things,” Moore admitted. “It took him a while to settle into the place but going to the start I was happy, he was moving well and relaxed well. He really dug in the last furlong and showed plenty of heart. A stronger pace would have been better for him.”
Moore said he felt Maurice was “slightly more impressive” in the Mile Championship back in Japan, “but he’s had to travel in.”
“That was his first run for a long time and he’s backed up three weeks later. He’s a very good horse and the race in Kyoto is always a very hard race and he’s probably slightly underrated on what he’s done. He’s a top-class miler.”
Trainer Hori, who currently leads all Japan Racing Association trainers in Japan, was his usual reticent self in his postrace comments. “This is my fifth visit to Hong Kong and I sent my horse here in great condition. Everything went as planned.”
Maurice clocked 1 minute, 33.92 seconds in the Mile. He finished 3/4 length ahead of Giant Treasure, with 2014 winner Able Friend following another quarter length behind in third.
Two other Japan-based horses ran in the Mile. Sakae Kunieda, trainer of 7th-place finisher Danon Platina, said the 3-year-old “was tense in the starting gate and travelled further back than expected. He was then boxed in and came through but it was too late.”
Mirco Demuro rode Fiero to a 9th-place finish. “He didn’t jump as well as last time in Japan,” Demuro said referring to Fiero’s run in the Mile Championship, in which Demuro rode the Deep Impact-sired 6-year-old to a second-place finish. On Sunday, Demuro said he “could still take a position” but that “after turning for home he did not have a clear run, and by the time he found the room he was tired.”
Maurice, already a double Grade I winner, came as no surprise when he found his way to the Hong Kong Mile winner’s circle, but A Shin Hikari, who was still chasing a top-level victory shocked when he finally caught it with one of Hong Kong’s most prestigious races. A Shin Hikari became the first Japanese horse to win the Cup since Agnes Digital in 2001, the same year Eishin Preston won the Mile.
The 4-year-old son of Deep Impact was sent neatly inward from the No. 11 gate and went quickly to the lead under Yutaka Take amid a moderate opening quarter. He quickened in the end and held off the advances of Japan’s Nuovo Record. It was the second HKIR win for Take, who won the Vase in 2001 with Stay Gold. It was the first win in Hong Kong for trainer Masanori Sakaguchi.
“He was in really good condition and I thought he could race well,” Take said of A Shin Hikari. “He is a horse with excellent ability but he has a difficult temperament and is hard to handle. Still, I thought if things went well in Hong Kong he had a chance.”
Take said the race had gone as planned. “I thought I would lead today and we pulled it off well. He was raring to go but he was patient, just borderline, but still under control and that was good.
“When we turned into the stretch he picked up the pace and I thought we could win it and, with 100 meters left, I knew we had it.
“I’d thought going to Hong Kong was a gamble but it all went well. It was good that he was able to be housed and train at the track and I think he is more suited to the Hong Kong ground than back home,” Take said.
“When loaded, he was the calmest and most relaxed he’s ever been. He has great potential and if he can run as relaxed as he did today then we have a lot to look forward to. I think his best distance may be around 2,000 meters but I think he has the ability to go a bit further too.”
Trainer Masanori Sakaguchi too felt calmness was key. “He is always very high-strung. But today, he was quiet and I thought there was a chance he would be able to show his ability.”
Take later waxed nostalgic already looking back on his win. “This will be a great memory for me because now I have finally won the Hong Kong Cup. And, I am sure the first generation owner, who had a lot of memories from Hong Kong racing, would surely be pleased.”
The late Toyomitsu Hirai owned Eishin Preston, who won the Hong Kong Mile in 2001 and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in 2002. The horse, in fact, lent his name Sunday to Race No. 6 at Sha Tin – the Eishin Preston Handicap. Take pointed out the unusually uncanny coincidence that the two characters that make up the name Toyomitsu are the characters for “Yutaka” and “Hikari” together.
Sakaguchi said he had given no thought to the horse’s next start, but would likely be giving him time off. Sakaguchi also said he would need to discuss with the owner any plans to return to Hong Kong in the spring for the QE2.
Ryan Moore piloted Cup runnerup Nuovo Record and just missed out on what would have been his third feature win of the day. He was pleased with the 4-year-old filly’s performance and said she deserves more recognition than she gets.
“She came here with a rating of 112 and that’s just wrong,” Moore said of Nuovo Record. “She was underrated. I’m very pleased with her, she ran a cracker. The other one was just too good on the day.”
Nuovo Record ran second last time out in the Grade II Sankei Sho All Comers and had finished in second place in two of her four Grade I bids last year. “It’s second place for her once again but her finishing drive today was astounding. It was a perfect ride. The winning horse went wire to wire so the pace was a bit slack, I think but…,” Saito said and trailed off. “Her late speed is polished and I think now she can run any kind of race because she has a variety of styles to draw on now.
“I don’t think of her as a filly that much,” Saito said with a laugh, “and I may put her up against male horses from here. Today was unfortunate but I think she gained something from the race.
“She showed that she isn’t a total wash in an overseas race and I think if we look at her suitability to races abroad she’d definitely have a chance. I’ll be giving a lot of thought to it,” he said.
Also running in the Cup from Japan were Staphanos and Satono Aladdin.The former was paired with Keita Tosaki and finished in 10th place. “The horse was in good form,” said Tosaki, “but I couldn’t get an inside position so it was a bit tough for him.”
In the Hong Kong Sprint, Japan’s three runners were unable to fare better than seventh place. Topping the trio was Mikki Isle, partnered with Suguru Hamanaka. “If I could, I had wanted to lead but the winning horse was fast. Still, this horse did his best until the end.”
Hidetaka Otonashi, trainer of the 4-year-old colt, said, “He hadn’t lost weight but the flight over may have been stressful for him. He was a bit flummoxed with it being his first time over the course. He usually has more tenacity and I think this was a mental thing,” Otonashi said. “I plan to let him have a bit of time off and then give him the same rotation for the beginning of next year as he had this year.”
Keita Tosaki rode the 6-year-old mare Straight Girl, third in last year’s Sprint, to a 9th-place finish. “She wasn’t able to get up to speed from the break and had to use up a lot of her reserves running on the outside. Still, she did manage to keep up with the pace,” Tosaki said.
Zachary Purton on the 12th-place Sakura Gospel said, “He ran OK but I thought he might be able to finish a bit more strongly.”
The HK$18.5 million Sprint was won by Hong Kong’s Peniaphobia, partnered with Joao Moreira.
The HK$16.5 million Hong Kong Vase, which saw no Japanese runners in the lineup this year, went to Ireland’s Highland Reel, with Flintshire in second. Highland Reel became the first 3-year-old colt to win the race. The colt, under Ryan Moore, also gave trainer Aidan O’Brien his first Hong Kong victory.
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