Loves Only You captures Hong Kong's Queen Elizabeth II Cup, as Japan sweep top four spots
Sunday, April 25 was a historical and spectacular day for Japan racing, with four of its horses sweeping the top spots of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Hong Kong.
The 2019 Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) champion Loves Only You came off a third-place finish less than a month ago in the Grade 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at Meydan to conquer Sha Tin and give Japan its sixth win of the 2,000-meter turf event.
History, however, was made, as three other horses from Japan in the seven-strong field - the 2019 Hong Kong Vase winner Glory Vase, the 2020 fillies’ triple crown winner Daring Tact, and the 2017 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger) winner Kiseki - followed Loves Only You over the finish line in that order.
The Queen Elizabeth II Cup was the third of three international Grade 1 turf events run on Champions Day - the 1,200-meter Chairman’s Sprint Prize, the Champions Mile and the 2,000-meter Queen Elizabeth II Cup.
The day had started with disappointment when Japan’s star, the 2020 Hong Kong Sprint winner and race favorite Danon Smash failed to fire in the first-up Chairman’s Sprint Prize. No Japanese horses participated in the Champions Mile, but the Queen Elizabeth II Cup represented Japan’s biggest showing to date, not only in numbers but in results, since Japanese horsemen first sent horses to the race in 1995 with Fujiyama Kenzan as their sole representative.
Victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup was not a Japan-only effort, however. Guiding Loves Only You home was Hong Kong’s own Vincent Ho, who just minutes before had landed his second Chairman’s Mile in as many years aboard local superstar Golden Sixty.
Ho was riding for Yahagi for the first time and it had proved a winning combination.
“This is unbelievable,” a breathless Ho said as he was interviewed riding back after the race. “Really, thank you to the trainer, the owner and all the connections that asked me to ride her. I knew her form from Dubai would be very competitive here and the race went very smoothly. The control was perfect and she tried her heart out today,” the 30-year-old Ho said.
For trainer Yoshito Yahagi, it was his first win in Hong Kong and the road to the winner’s circle had been a long one. Along the way had been two failed attempts in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup and five others in the Hong Kong International Races.
Yahagi had come closest to winning in Hong Kong with Lys Gracieux and her second in the 2018 Hong Kong Vase. His previous Queen Elizabeth II Cup attempts had brought him a 10th with Uncoiled in 2014 and a third-place finish with Lys Gracieux in 2019.
Yahagi has won in Dubai and Australia, but never before in Hong Kong. He was beside himself with joy.
“I’m so excited I can barely speak. She was the only one coming from Dubai,” he said of Loves Only You. “And that made it hard to prepare, but she has matured and bravely gave it her all. I owe her so much. And I owe so much to my staff, who overcame a lot of difficulties in preparing her for here. I am so proud of everyone.”
Ho, however, perhaps said it best at the photo shoot postrace when he raced his hands high and brought them together, his fingers forming the shape of a heart.
“I can’t describe it,” he said later. “She ran so solidly. She was very kind until the final 800 meters and when I asked her from there, she responded very well through the line. I didn’t dare look back before the finish line but she was amazing.”
“Winning the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, the Hong Kong Derby and the Hong Kong International Races have been dreams of mine. This win means a lot. This is a highlight of my riding career.”
The 5-year-old Northern Farm-bred Loves Only You clocked 2 minutes 1.22 seconds over the fast 2,000 meters of turf at Sha Tin. Following her over the line by 3/4 length was Glory Vase, a 6-year-old son of Deep Impact. Daring Tact was third half a length later, with the 7-year-old veteran Kiseki in fourth place less than half a second behind the winner.
Runner-up Glory Vase is a 6-year-old by Deep Impact trained by Tomohito Ozeki, who won his first overseas race with the horse in 2019 in the Hong Kong Vase under Joao Moreira.
“He was relaxed and on his game. I knew he was going to the gate in convincing shape. He was a bit unsettled in the gate and a bit slow at the break. The break was far slower than I’d expected it to be and I think you could say that that affected the outcome. He did gain ground in the stretch and for him to have run second over 2,000 meters is a good showing for him. It is frustrating but he lost looking good.”
Karis Teetan had the ride. “I think it was a good race. I thought the others would move early so I watched Ho and moved when he did. I think this horse ran solidly until the finish.”
Trainer Haruki Sugiyama opened his stable only four years ago, but only last year, his prize filly Daring Tact brought him the fillies’ triple crown. This was his debut in Hong Kong. “It was her first long trip to the track and she weathered it well. She was able to get a nice clear run up the inside and I’d like to simply praise the winner for a race very well run.”
Jockey Kohei Matsuyama, the only Japan-based jockey to ride at Sha Tin on the Champions Day, said, “I think she turned in a good race, as she always does. We were the race favorite and failed to deliver on those expectations, for which I’d like to apologize. I can’t put my finger on why she lost. I think the winner was just stronger.”
For trainer Yasuyuki Tsujino, it was his debut at Sha Tin and though he didn’t make the top three, his Kiseki did manage to take home a share of the HK$25 million purse. Tsujino opened his stable just this year and, formerly associated with recently retired trainer Katsuhiko Sumii.
“He wasn’t able to keep up in the dash from the gate and wasn’t able to get a forward position. Still, he travelled well. The race unfolded smoothly and came down to who had the sharpest turn of foot in the final stage, which isn’t a trip that suits Kiseki, which was unfortunate. Still, he gave us a good race and I’d like to praise him for that.”
The 27-year-old jockey Chad Schofield expressed similar. “He was slow away and we could only get a position midfield. The pace was slow and didn’t suit him, but he did try hard over the final 200 meters. The pace was just too slow for him, but he did what he could.”
In the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, jockey Joao Moreira had piloted Danon Smash. The popular sentiment was that Danon Smash was going to repeat his winning performance at Sha Tin just four months earlier.
Earlier in the week, Moreira had expressed his satisfaction with the draw, remarking that “anything was better” than what Danon Smash had drawn last time he was in Hong Kong. Moreira even described the December field as having been “much stronger” than the Chairman’s Sprint Prize.
However, Moreira did make a point of saying this year’s race was a “very tricky” one and had cautioned about the “very fast horses jumping from inside” of Danon Smash. He had also stated three days before the race, “I would have Wellington as the main danger.”
Moreira’s hunch proved true, though it didn’t appear that the competition was the problem as much as it was Danon Smash’s inability on this given day to bring what he usually does to the track.
In the final stage, those watching were left waiting for Danon Smash to switch into top gear. He never did, leaving commentators concerned something was terribly amiss with the two-time Grade 1 champion.
In first place was the Richard Gibson-trained Wellington under Frenchman Alexis Badel. The Tony Cruz-trained Computer Patch was second under Matthew Chadwick and Sky Field filled out the trifecta.
Danon Smash had begun moderately and was ridden hard throughout by Moreira, but could do no better than sixth, beaten by 4 lengths, and 0.63 seconds off the winner. “He was under pressure at the 600-meter mark,” said Moreira, “There was nothing there. It’s too bad.”
Trainer Takayuki Yasuda was watching the race at Tokyo Racecourse. “His response going into the stretch may have been slower than last year’s,” he said.
“I was told he was in excellent condition and it’s very disappointing. He moved from midfield, just as he did in the Hong Kong Sprint last year and moved up but just couldn’t gain ground like he did then. If I can think of anything as the cause, I’d have to say the rotation was too tight for him.
The 6-year-old son of sprint champion Lord Kanaloa, with whom Yasuda had notched back-to-back wins of the Hong Kong Sprint in 2012-2013, was coming off a win of the Grade 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo racetrack on March 28. Yasuda said “I think I’d like to take on the challenge again” and indicated that he planned to take Danon Smash directly to the Sprinters Stakes next on Oct. 3 at Nakayama.
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