Ratings suggest HKIR can stand the test of time again
What does it take to excel at the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races?
Some answers are easier than others. For a start, you need superior ability, something that can be measured through ratings. Timeform ratings have existed for over 70 years and have a global reputation in assessment of racehorse performance. Their objective, numerical appraisal of HKIR underlines the standing of the event.
Average ratings achieved by HKIR winners, seconds and thirds in the last five years are among the highest anywhere. You cannot hope to get a sniff of the action without performing to an elite level.
The Hong Kong Mile leads the way in terms of ratings achieved by winners, no surprise given that Beauty Generation won the last two renewals and Able Friend won in 2014.
Both Hong Kong legends earned performance ratings of 130 (in 2018 for Beauty Generation), which placed them alongside the world’s best. Beauty Generation has been officially the best miler on any surface, anywhere in 2019. But that was before the seven-year-old came unstuck not once but twice at Sha Tin.
Which brings us to another answer to an earlier question: you not only need to be very good to shine on the big stage, you need to deliver on the day. Delivering on the right day depends on several things but is certainly helped by an ideal preparation. That can no longer be claimed for Beauty Generation.
It is easy to excuse his third in the Sha Tin Trophy, in which he conceded substantial weight to smart rivals – Timeform rated that effort just 2lb below Beauty Generation’s lifetime best – but not his defeat in Sunday’s G2 Jockey Club Mile. There he earned a “mere” 122 rating, the same as winner Waikuku, to whom he conceded 5 lb.
That latest defeat raises another question that should be asked whenever a horse disappoints, or, indeed, when he does not. Did the run of the race count against him, and, in Beauty Generation’s case specifically, did he go too fast? Worryingly for his huge fan club, in this case the answer is a firm “no”.
Exultant excels ahead of second Vase bid
There are many ways of interpreting sectional timing data, but one of the easiest yet most revealing is to calculate a horse’s speed at the end of a race as a percentage of its speed for the race overall.
This eliminates adjustments to absolute times recorded under different circumstances and summarises a performance with one simple measure. At the same time, what happened before the sectional waypoint is implied by the finishing speed % after it: a fast finish implies a slower earlier pace, a slow finish the opposite.
We can expect a par finishing speed (derived from all efficiently-run performances) to be around 101.5% for a track like Sha Tin. Those upgrades to individual performances, expressed in pounds, arise from the difference between that par and the finishing speed % actually achieved.
Beauty Generation ran closest to finishing-speed par on Sunday, and any suggestion that he went too fast early is further undermined by the fact that the horse who matched strides with him initially – Ka Ying Star – ended up ahead of him.
By way of comparison, Beauty Generation ran finishing speeds of 102.2% and 103.2% – both fractionally quicker than par and similar to his Trial run – for his Hong Kong Mile wins in 2018 and 2017.
Exultant ran 105.2% (a similarly quick finish to this year’s Trial win) in winning the Vase in 2018, Mr Stunning ran a close-to-par 102.0% in winning the 2018 Sprint, and Glorious Forever ran a fast-finishing 105.8% to win a tactical 2018 Cup.
In the circumstances, it is difficult to believe Exultant compromised his chances of a second Vase with a “gut buster” of an effort in Sunday’s G2 Jockey Club Cup (as speculated by jockey Zac Purton) when one sees those closing figures. Early leader Time Warp recorded just a 97.4% finishing speed as he dropped away, but most of the field were racing within themselves for most of the way.
Aethero comes up to the mark with weight advantage
Meanwhile, although Aethero was mightily impressive again in the G2 Jockey Club Sprint, he did set close-to-par splits without being fully taken on, while placed horses Hot King Prawn and Beat The Clock finished faster in both absolute and relative terms having been off the course for eleven and seven months respectively.
All the same, Timeform have awarded Aethero’s effort a 126 performance rating. For the record, that would have been good enough to win narrowly or dead-heat for first in every Hong Kong Sprint since 2013, which was the year Lord Kanaloa stormed to victory with a sensational 133 figure.
Timeform has also awarded Exultant a new career best 128 for his Jockey Club Cup win. That figure has been surpassed in recent times in the Vase only by globetrotting 2015 winner Highland Reel (129).
It should be noted that Exultant conceded weight on Sunday and that Aethero as a Southern Hemisphere three-year-old – albeit a precocious one weighing almost 1250lb - received plenty of it.
Aethero will receive a handy weight-for-age allowance again on 8 December, though Hong Kong’s champion sprinter Beat The Clock will no longer shoulder a G1 penalty for the return match.
Japan and Ireland lead the international charge
Mention of Highland Reel – who won a second Vase in 2017 – flags up one other important HKIR factor. It is not necessarily enough to be king in your own backyard when foreign aces are in town.
Among the international challengers discussed this year are much-travelled Japanese mare Deirdre (Timeform 121), unlucky not to beat Glorious Forever in last year’s Cup judged on sectional evidence and pencilled in for a Vase clash with Exultant after a fine summer and autumn in Europe.
The presence of Aidan O’Brien’s Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck (123) would add considerable interest to the Vase after his luckless Breeders Cup Turf third, while the appeal of sending high-class stablemate Circus Maximus (124) for the Mile is obvious now Beauty Generation has left the door ajar.
Add in the possibility of a female showdown between 129-rated Japanese super-filly Almond Eye and O’Brien’s 125-rated Euro star Magical in the Cup and this year’s HKIR promises to be one of the best yet. Superior ability, efficient sectionals, and a bit of good fortune (or perhaps even Magic) are all likely to be needed to prevail this time round.
Simon Rowlands worked for many years for British-based international form organisation Timeform. He is now a freelance writer and researcher who specialises in numerical and data-driven approaches to horseracing, especially in the area of timings and sectionals.