AHEAD of the most prestigious weekend on the Hong Kong racing calendar, it is worth reflecting how a succession of top-class fillies and mares have illuminated the annual International Races card at Sha Tin.
Even allowing for the regrettable absence of Japanese superstar Almond Eye, who spiked a temperature at the wrong time and didn’t board her plane, the likes of her compatriot Deirdre and the European pair Magic Wand and Edisa are among those set to feature in the Longines-sponsored showpiece.
They will be following in the footsteps of a starry contingent of fillies and mares from an array of different nations to have embellished their reputation at Hong Kong’s end-of-year championships, among them the likes of Ouija Board, Snow Fairy and New Zealand’s mighty mare Sunline. Maybe we should call it the sisterhood of the travelling nags!
Watch the 2019 Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 8th December from 3.45 am.
However, their presence is intriguing given the make-up of the local scene because it is a fact of racing life in Hong Kong that the domestic scene has never been overburdened on the distaff side, though there have been a few notable performers. Elegant Fashion won the Hong Kong Derby for David Hayes and Gerald Mosse in 2003, while Sweet Sanette almost beat some of the best sprinters from Europe and beyond when third in the 2011 King's Stand Stakes for Tony Millard.
They remain, though, among a select group of exceptions that prove the rule. Fillies and mares are an absolute rarity in Hong Kong barns, to the extent that precisely none of the approximately 1,250 horses housed at Sha Tin in May 2019 were females.
Admittedly, this was an extreme situation and there are at least a couple now. Hong Kong expert Andrew Hawkins located a Paul O’Sullivan-trained two-year-old named Tinker Belle and an unnamed filly with Benno Yung.
It is a long-running trend, almost like trying to gain membership to an antediluvian golf club dream: females need not apply. Although we’d better not extend that analogy, because 96% of male racehorses in Hong Kong are geldings.
Given the evident success of fillies and mares at the HKIR, what explains their near-total absence on the domestic scene? First, and most obviously, is the lack of a breeding industry in Hong Kong, where all the equine competitors are imported from abroad.
There are hopes this situation may develop with the advent of the Conghua training centre and racecourse in a disease-free on mainland China may foster a move towards breeding stock, but for the time being (and the foreseeable), there is nothing to be gained with a view by winning races with a view to future broodmare status – and nor is there any programme of restricted races for female horses.
(With that in mind, it is ironic that the late Urban Sea, arguably the most influential broodmare of the modern era as the dam of Galieo and Sea The Stars, was Hong Kong-owned, by the Tsui family.)
Then, of course, there are deeply ingrained habits among the region’s training community.
While it is not unknown for females trained from the Sha Tin barns to thrive, space constraints and the intensity of the environment are often considered a negative. "I'm always willing to try things but this is a tough environment for fillies to thrive in,” says Hong Kong training legend John Moore.
Fellow veteran Caspar Fownes suggests that the mindset of most HK owners plays a key role. "To me it all depends on the individual,” he says. "It's not an easy environment but owners often go with what history tells them and so in their minds the safe option is to go with a gelding.
"If you were to be buying a filly you would have to make sure she has the right temperament but there are plenty of beautiful, quiet horses out there and if you break down the record of the good fillies who come here for the big races in December it's more than all right!"
Indeed it is. Since Corey Black partnered Glen Kate, trained by US legend Bill Shoemaker, to win the Hong Kong Mile of 1992 (actually run in April 1993 owing to an equine virus), a number of female horses have put their male rivals in their place. Here, with apologies to the likes of Borgia and Vallee Enchantee, are six of the best.
*My thanks to Graham Cunningham of the Hong Kong Jockey Club for his assistance with this blog.
MIGHTY MARES – SIX OF THE BEST TO HAVE SCORED IN HONG KONG
SUNLINE - HONG KONG MILE 2000
“This just goes to prove what a champion she is” - Greg Childs
There was a reason why kiwi darling Sunline was known as ‘the mare of the world’ as the McKee family’s mighty mare demonstrated at Sha Tin with a typically gutsy front-running victory over Fairy King Prawn in one of the most celebrated – and dramatic – clashes in Hong Kong racing history. She was all out to hold the local icon but hold out she did, even though the home favourite would have won in another stride. When Sunline was retired in 2002, she had 13 Group 1s to her name and was the highest-earning racemare of all time.
ALEXANDER GOLDRUN - HONG KONG CUP 2004
“I was happy with her from the word go” - Jim Bolger
As progressive as they come during a busy three-year-old campaign, Alexander Goldrun had landed her first Group 1 in the Prix de l’Opera before handling vastly divergent conditions and a wide draw at Sha Tin, where she just held off the late surge of local star Bullish Luck. The durable filly was the first female to win Hong Kong’s showpiece international contest; she carried on for two more seasons, ending with five G1 wins in four different countries – plus a memorable defeat in a Nassau Stakes thriller with Ouija Board.
OUIJA BOARD - HONG KONG VASE 2005
"I never worry during a race” - Kieren Fallon
Kieren Fallon after Hong Kong Vase (2005)
Her jockey may have been unflustered but everyone else was slightly more anxious as Ouija Board’s injury-interrupted four-year-old season seemed set to end with further disappointment as she turned for home seemingly trapped in behind with Fallon getting down to work. We need not have worried: Ed Dunlop’s hugely popular filly burst between horses, coming from last to first in the straight and strolling home in the end for a convincing victory.
PRIDE - HONG KONG CUP 2006
“It was her very special fighting spirit that got her home” - Christophe Lemaire
Blessed with a potent turn of foot held up off a strong pace, Pride got better as she got older – and fortunately she was given plenty of time to get better, racing from the ages of two to six. She’d already been second in the Arc and won the Champion Stakes before her visit to Hong Kong, where she won a thriller despite her jockey admitting he might have gone too soon, leaving her vulnerable to Admire Moon’s flying finish. She held on by a short head. Pride’s rating of 123 made her the world’s highest-ranked female racehorse in 2006.
DARYAKANA – HONG KONG VASE 2009
“Gerald Mosse knew the track to the millimetre” - Alain de Royer-Dupre
Completing a meteoric rise to Group 1 success, the Aga Khan’s Daryakana hadn’t even seen a racecourse until July of her three-year-old campaign. Making her top-level debut after four straight victories in five months, she was held up before being launched on the home turn widest if all with an irresistible charge to run down Spanish Moon and Kasbah Bliss. “She was always held up like that and you don't change a winning formula,” said trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre.
SNOW FAIRY - HONG KONG CUP 2010
"She's not the biggest filly in the world but she's got the biggest heart in the world” - Ed Dunlop
Rugged and reliable, Snow Fairy had already won in Japan since her pair of Oaks victories in her Classic season. The hugely popular filly capped a fantastic three-year-old campaign with a truly astonishing last-gasp victory in Hong Kong, where she produced an amazing turn of foot to come from nearly last under Ryan Moore. "She's very special – an absolute machine,” said the jockey.