Back in 1989, when Hong Kong racing was generally regarded as a bit of a backwater, the first Hong Kong Invitation Cup was a fairly obscure race restricted to horses from Singapore and Malaysia alongside the domestic colony, which duly provided the winner in locally-trained Flying Dancer.
Move forward three decades, and the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races are long since established as one of the world’s great racing occasions, the second Saturday in December a magnet for the world’s best jockeys and trainers. This year that means Moore, Moreira and Bowman; O’Brien, Fabre and Stoute.
Four hugely competitive Group 1 races will take place amid a riot of local colour (think dragon dancing and associated Far East pageantry) and a fervent punting crowd at one of the world’s most spectacular racecourses in an unmissable end-of-year jamboree attracting an impressively cosmopolitan cast of high-class horses from the corners of the globe. Just what is it they say about little acorns?
Keen to raise both the standards of Hong Kong racing, the then-Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club expanded their international ambitions in the early 1990s, opening up the event to the rest of the world and adding extra races to the programme at Sha Tin.
Ah yes, Sha Tin. Before we go any further, let us just consider this wondrous venue. If a night’s racing at city-centre Happy Valley – imagine Chester in Central Park – is one of the racing world’s ‘bucketlist’ attractions, that improbably tight circuit is not really a venue for top-class thoroughbreds unless you favour back-to-back hostage-to-fortune races heavily influenced by the draw.
Enter Sha Tin, home to every major race in the territory. Accessed by its own metro-transit station, Hong Kong’s showpiece racecourse opened in 1978 on a reclaimed floodplain in the New Territories about a 45-minute journey from the Central district.
Its facilities to rival anywhere in the world, among them two colossal grandstands with room for more than 85,000 people, a parade ring with a retractable roof and a gigantic LED betting screen by the winning post – all set against an array of skyscrapers and the peaks of the Lion Rock Country Park. (Sha Tin is also Hong Kong’s training centre, with capacity for 1,200-plus horses. The new Conghua training centre on the Chinese mainland is now providing room for hundreds more and will stage what could prove a highly significant exhibition raceday – with everything you would expect from a normal Hong Kong raceday except betting – in the spring of 2019.)
Admittedly, some things were rather different in the early days. There were only three races for a start, but guess who won the first HK Invitation Bowl, the seven-furlong event that would be transformed into the Mile? Additional Risk, trained by none other than Dermot Weld, a man who never encountered a new racing frontier he didn’t want to cross.
The Irish legend will be there again 29 years later on Sunday when he saddles the filly Eziyra in the Vase at one of the richest racedays on the planet with a total of HK$93 million (about £9.3m) up for grabs across the four feature races which have been dubbed (with a smidgen of hyperbole) as the ‘Turf World Championships’.
By virtually any measure, the Hong Kong International series must be regarded as a huge success, its roll of honour graced by a litany of big-name European performers. The Hong Kong Cup alone has been won by the likes of Fantastic Light, Falbrav, Alexander Goldrun, Pride, Ramonti, Vision D’Etat and Snow Fairy, while Ouija Board and Highland Reel head the list of household names to have won the Vase. And that’s before you consider an array of Japanese and domestic stars.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club must surely have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams when it comes to improving local standards in equine terms. The region has always been unimpeachable with regard to integrity and regulation, which is vital in such a gambling-crazy environment, where HK$1.5bn (£1.5m) changes hands on a ten-race card; turnover totalled $HK122.8bn (£12.3bn) in 2017-18.
The quality of racehorse used to lag behind Hong Kong’s exalted reputation in other areas but not anymore. Superstar sprinters Silent Witness and Sacred Kingdom, three-time Mile winner Good Ba Ba, Able Friend and Vengeance Of Rain have all scorched the Sha Tin turf since the turn of the century.
Truth to tell, this weekend’s meeting isn’t quite as cosmopolitan as it might be. The Americans aren’t there while unfortunate quarantine issues have restricted the Australian presence to just a single horse in the shape of Comin’ Through, a Group 1 winner representing Winx’s trainer Chris Waller.
Europe and Japan remain well represented, yet arguably the star attraction is one of the home team. Beauty Generation is sure to start an odds-on shot as he bids to confirm his status on the world stage with a repeat victory in the Mile; with an international rating of 126, he is already the highest-rated specialist turf miler in the world.
Formerly known as Montaigne in Australia before being imported (Hong Kong has no breeding industry) to join the powerful John Moore stable, the six-year-old broke a decade-long track record last month over course and distance in his Group 2 prep race.
Local horses have a woeful record in the Vase, which at 1m4f (2,400 metres) is run over a distance beyond the norm in Hong Kong; in fact, the home team has won just twice in a 24-year history. William Buick rides Pakistan Star, the mercurial cult hero of Hong Kong racing who is among those trying to fend off visitors including the Andre Fabre-trained Waldgeist, Irish Derby winner Latrobe and Japan’s Lys Gracieux – plus a phalanx of Brits headed by Mirage Dancer, Salouen and Melbourne Cup placegetter Prince Of Arran.
The David Elsworth-trained Sir Dancealot must surely have his work cut out to get in the frame against the cream of Hong Kong’s formidable, mainly John Size-trained array of talent in the Sprint, where Godolphin’s Fine Needle represents Japanese Grade 1 form.
All of which leaves the main event, the $HK28m Cup, in which Time Warp – a five-time winner for Sir Mark Prescott in early life – bids to follow up last year’s success. The Japanese team, headed by Sungrazer and Deirdre, will fancy their chances of striking at what is nothing less than racing’s year-end global showcase.
SIX ABSOLUTE BELTERS: MEMORABLE HONG KONG RACES
Sunline – 2000 Mile
An absolute nailbiter as the post came just in time for dual Cox Plate winner Sunline to hold off the tremendous late charge of local star Fairy King Prawn. Backed by a crescendo of noise from a partisan crowd, the runner-up failed by a short-head by collar the New Zealand mare.
Race replay: Sunline holds off the late run of Fairy King Prawn in the 2000 Mile.
Falbrav – 2003 Cup
Returning to his favoured trip on fast ground after coming off only third-best in an epic Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita, Luca Cumani’s bull of a horse was utterly imperious at Sha Tin, where the cheers started at top of the straight as Frankie Dettori began his charge. He won by a couple of lengths over another top-class horse in Rakti on what was the tenth start of an unforgettable campaign in which he raced exclusively in Group/Grade 1 company, winning five.
Race replay: Falbrav defeats Rakti in the 2003 Cup to cap an unforgettable campaign.
Silent Witness – 2004 Sprint
Three-time world champion sprinter and dual Hong Kong Horse of the Year; no wonder Silent Witness has legendary status among the HK racing community. For a prolonged period, he was literally unbeatable over five furlongs at Sha Tin, where he won his first 17 starts – including this, his second HK Sprint (then over the straight five) where he routed a world-class field. Back in second, never able to land a glove on the winner, was Cape Of Good Hope, who six months later won the Golden Jubilee Stakes.
Race replay: Silent Witness routes a world-class field in 2004 to land his second Sprint.
Snow Fairy – 2010 Cup
A stunning performance from the massively popular Ed Dunlop-trained filly, who produced an electrifying turn of foot wide down the straight from an unpromising position towards the rear off a slow pace to beat a field full of top-class performers. Ryan Moore admitted afterwards that he thought he had no chance turning in; it’s easy to see why.
Race replay: The hugely popular filly Snow Fairy overcomes adversity to land the 2010 Cup.
Lord Kanaloa – 2013 Sprint
Japan has had loads of success in Hong Kong from the likes of Maurice, A Shin Hikari and Satono Crown but just watch this one: the winner’s in a different league. You won’t believe how easily Lord Kanaloa dismisses Sole Power and the rest in a five-length rout for his sixth Group 1 success on the final start of his career. He’d won almost as easily 12 months previously and is back in the news as sire of Japan's latest superstar Almond Eye.
Race replay: Lord Kanaloa routs the field for his sixth Group 1 on his final start in the 2013 Sprint.
Highland Reel – 2017 Vase
The final act in a notable international career as the Ballydoyle stalwart displayed all his celebrated toughness to hold Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Talismanic, who coasted alongside in the straight. It was the seventh top-level success (second in Hong Kong) in a career featuring 27 races on four different continents. “He’s a very special horse – he’s irreplaceable, really,” said Aidan O’Brien.
Race replay: Highland Reel registers his seventh top-level win in his finale, the 2017 Vase.