Global stars align as Hong Kong shows its sporting face for LONGINES HKIR
The key destinations on horse racing's annual global journey are familiar to any fan of the sport but the individual storylines that play out along the way are what define their position on the year-end stage.
America's turbulent racing year started with a dramatic Kentucky Derby demotion and rumbled on with equine welfare front and centre at the Breeders' Cup.
The remarkable Frankie Dettori continued to drink at the fountain of youth ahead of his imminent 49th birthday, stealing the Royal Ascot show with seven winners and lighting up the European scene like never before with 19 G1 successes.
France and Australia upheld national pride by bucking a trend to keep their cherished Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and Melbourne Cup trophies at home, while the burgeoning influence of Japan was highlighted by a string of major G1 successes all over the world.
And so we come to the final stopping-off point on international racing's 2019 merry-go-round.
Hong Kong has its own challenges as the latest edition of the LONGINES HKIR draws closer but racing continues as a welcome distraction and this year's showcase on 8 December has a great deal to live up to after last year's historic clean sweep of all four G1 contests by the home team.
Homegrown heroes up for the challenge again
Exultant got the party started on a chilly day at Sha Tin last December by beating an exceptional LONGINES Hong Kong Vase (2400m) field including subsequent Cox Plate and Arc winners Lys Gracieux and Waldgeist, while Mr Stunning stole the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) show for a second year running.
The brilliant Beauty Generation and Glorious Forever crowned a memorable day by winning the Mile (1600m) and the Cup (2000m) but Hong Kong's big four have had mixed fortunes in recent months and the door is ajar for others to make their mark this year.
As ever, superstar riders from all over the world will be jockeying for position to ensure their December options are as strong as possible.
Currently on eight winners after a double last year, Hong Kong champion Zac Purton needs just one more victory to nose ahead of French legend Gerald Mosse as the leading rider in HKIR history.
Purton's arch rival Joao Moreira has been in rampant form after a truncated spell in Japan last year, while Dettori will cap an epic international campaign by joining a ‘Who’s Who’ of world-class riders in the hugely popular LONGINES International Jockeys’ Championship at Happy Valley on Wednesday, 4 December.
Knocking Dettori’s unique blend of skill and charisma off the front pages after such a stellar season would be nigh-on impossible in normal circumstances - but this is no normal year.
Hong Kong set to go nuts about Almond
The current king of the saddle will compete for headlines with the queen of the Japanese turf after connections announced that Almond Eye is heading to Sha Tin for the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) and the media circus that will chronicle every step this outstanding filly takes could go a long way to eliminating Hong Kong’s hotel room surplus.
Exultant left no room for doubt that he remains the best 2000m horse in Hong Kong with an emphatic G2 Jockey Club Cup success on Sunday, 17 November, and the fact that the Vase is his preferred LONGINES HKIR target again suggests that Almond Eye’s main opposition in the Cup could well emerge from Europe.
Australia and Japan look likely to be represented in the Sprint but it takes a special horse to beat Hong Kong’s fastest horses on their own patch and Aethero’s powerhouse performance in Sunday’s G2 Jockey Club Sprint - with honourable mentions for placed horses Hot King Prawn and Beat The Clock - suggests that the 1200m bar remains at a very high level.
And then we come to Beauty Generation, whose record-breaking feats for John Moore and Purton have echoed around the racing world over the last two years.
The world’s highest-rated miler tasted defeat for the first time in over 18 months in a tactical battle for last month’s G2 Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy Handicap (1600m) and followed up by losing consecutive races for the first time since March 2017 when a dull third under a 5lb penalty behind up-and-coming Waikuku in Sunday’s G2 Jockey Club Mile.
Moore remains confident that he can “tweak things” to coax Beauty Generation back to his best when he meets the international challenge again at level weights on 8 December.
A third consecutive Mile success would represent one of the crowning moments of the charismatic Aussie’s final season with a Hong Kong training licence and fans of the seven-year-old can take heart from the fact that Good Ba Ba was beaten in the very same two races as Beauty Generation on the way to winning his third Mile back in 2009.
All to play for with under three weeks to go
The LONGINES HKIR Blog series will put key issues under the spotlight over the next three weeks.
We track Beauty Generation from dawn until dusk on the day of his latest dramatic Jockey Club Mile bid.
Leading international time expert Simon Rowlands breaks down the key factors that helped Hong Kong horses dominate last year’s four G1 races and reveals what the clock says about last weekend’s major trials.
Sky Sports Racing’s lead analyst Jamie Lynch profiles the Frankie factor ahead of the evergreen Italian’s first Hong Kong riding appearance since 2011, while renowned international racing author Nicholas Godfrey charts the progress of one of modern racing’s most colourful world travellers as Japanese mare Deirdre continues her global odyssey with her third visit to Sha Tin.
Add in the very latest from regular contributors Steve Moran and Howard Wright and the stage is set for a Sha Tin spectacular.
World-class horses, jockeys and trainers are gearing up for one important final push as Hong Kong shows its sporting face to the world again.
And, with Almond Eye, Aethero, Exultant, Beauty Generation, Zac and Frankie topping the bill, the final act of international racing’s 2019 circus has all the makings of a blockbuster.
Graham Cunningham chose a career in racing ahead of the law thirty years ago and has never regretted it for a moment.
Nine years with the world-renowned Timeform organization paved the way for a lengthy spell as a reporter and columnist in various newspapers, starting with the Sporting Life and followed by the Racing Post and the London Evening Standard.
Graham also spent a more than a decade on television in the UK as a lead analyst for Racing UK and Channel 4 but moved to Hong Kong early in 2017 and is currently employed as Senior Racing Media Content Specialist for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.