Nicholas Godfrey on FWD Champions Day

International expert Nicholas Godfrey examines Sunday’s FWD Champions Day card at Sha Tin - featuring three Group 1 contests - live on Sky Sports Racing.

  • Thursday 23 April
  • Blog
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WELL, this is a rum do and no mistake: a three-race international meeting without any semblance of an international runner.

Such are the consequences of the coronavirus crisis when it comes to Sunday’s FWD Champions Day card, where a trio of richly endowed contests largely staged to attract overseas horses will go ahead with purely domestic fields.

There won’t be a crowd, and strict social distancing will be enforced for those present at Sha Tin, 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.

Watch FWD Champions Day at Sha Tin live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 26th April from 5.30 am.

While Sha Tin has two colossal grandstands with room for more than 85,000, Sunday’s attendance will be closer to 85 than 85,000. However, given the gruesome consequences of the pandemic, such matters must surely be regarded as annoyances rather than anything more critical.

Hong Kong has done a wonderful job keeping its show on the road for the last couple of months – and, happily, Champions Day will be shown live on Sky Sports Racing, giving Britain’s action-starved racing fans a proper reason to get out of bed on Sunday morning.

Even without Hong Kong Derby winner Golden Sixty, done for the year after an unbeaten seven-race season, a star-studded cast of local horses will be on hand to contest the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, Champions Mile and Chairman’s Sprint Prize.

Although the QEII and the Champions Mile had been run on the same day in the past, the sprint was added a few years ago to complete a second high-profile international day’s racing in Hong Kong alongside the prestigious Longines-sponsored HKIR four-race series in December.

Offering the richest prize fund of the three at HK$25 million (£2.62m), the QEII is the nominal centrepiece. Attaining G1 status only in 2001, the 2,000-metre (1m2f) highlight has a longer history than that, having been introduced in 1975 at Hong Kong’s unique city-centre venue Happy Valley to commemorate a visit to Hong Kong by Her Majesty and Prince Philip.

The race became an international contest in 1995, since when it has been won a succession of high-class middle-distance performers, among them renowned globetrotters such as France’s Jim And Tonic and the Luca Cumani-trained Presvis, plus a handful of Japanese and a number of Hong Kong’s most beloved horses. We’re talking about the likes of Vengeance Of Rain, Viva Pataca, Ambitious Dragon and the mercurial Pakistan Star.

In this context, it would be idle to suggest the 2020 edition with a single-figure field of Hong Kongers promises an absolute blockbuster, there is at least one star name in the shape of the region’s champion stayer/middle-distance horse Exultant. The Tony Cruz-trained gelding has come a long way since he won two races in Ireland under the name Irishcorrespondent for Mick Halford; he is set to start odds-on as he bids to go one better after last year’s runner-up effort behind Japan’s Win Bright.

Rival trainer Tony Millard, who runs both Glorious Dragon and Elusive State, isn’t sounding confident about his chances of upsetting the favourite. “Exultant looks outstanding in there,” he says. “It doesn't look like anything should beat him, again it looks like we're running for place money but my horses will be in there doing their best.”

The Chairman’s Sprint Prize began life as the Hong Kong Sprint Championship to coincide with the opening of Sha Tin. Although superstar sprinters like Silent Witness and Sacred Kingdom – both of them twice – feature on the roll of honour, the race was elevated to international G1 status only in 2016, when Australia’s ‘Grey Flash’ Chautauqua became the only overseas winner there’s ever been.

Sprint sensation Aethero, the blistering three-year-old who lowered Sacred Kingdom’s 12-year-old track record over 1,000 metres (5f) earlier in the season bids to redeem a tarnished reputation against Hot King Prawn in the HK$18m (£1.89m) event.

Aethero, who needs to lead, has trialled brilliantly since flopping last time out when blowing the start and racing too freely behind shock winner Voyage Warrior in a G2 over this course and 1,200-metre (6f) distance.

The star turn, however, comes in the Champions Mile, where hometown hero Beauty Generation bids to complete an unprecedented hat-trick on what is likely to be his Hong Kong swansong.

Although the world champion miler, joint-highest-rated horse in the history of Hong Kong racing, seemed to have lost a step in the season’s early skirmishes, the seven-year-old has regained the winning thread on his last two starts.

Beauty Generation’s third consecutive win in the G1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup in February took his top-flight haul to eight wins, while subsequent victory in the Chairman’s Trophy made him the first horse to break the HK$100m (£10.48m) prize-money barrier.

The superstar’s chief threat comes from a familiar quarter in Waikuku, who finished in front of Beauty Generation four times in a row before the end of January. Beauty Generation has turned the tables more recently in a spicy rivalry that extends to the men in the saddle as the pair are ridden by title-chasing pair Zac Purton (Beauty Generation) and Joao ‘Magic Man’ Moreira (Waikuku).

Battle will be joined on Sunday, with rather more on the line than bragging rights as Beauty Generation’s connections eye Hong Kong’s ultimate equine prize – for the third year in succession.

“If we can win the Champions Mile, he’d have to be a serious chance of being Horse of the Year again,” says trainer John Moore. “It holds a lot of kudos – the Kwok family [owners], with what they’ve put into racing, I think they’d be thrilled if he won a third Horse of the Year and he’ll deserve it if he wins on Sunday.”

Watch FWD Champions Day at Sha Tin live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 26th April from 5.30 am.

Watch three Hong Kong heroes from overseas from past Champions Days

PRESVIS (QEII CUP 2009)

Last two furlongs out, the famously quirky gelding weaves through the field in the Sha Tin straight under Ryan Moore to deny local hero Viva Pataca.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website

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MAURICE (CHAMPIONS MILE 2016)

One of only two foreign-trained horses to claim the Champions Mile, the reigning Japanese Horse of the Year brutally dispatches his rivals. The world-class miler obviously liked Sha Tin where he also won twice at the Longines HK International Races in December.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website

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CHAUTAUQUA (CHAIRMAN’S SPRINT PRIZE 2016)

‘The Thunder Down Under’: Witness a devastating last-to-first victory from the Aussie sprinter known as the ‘Grey Flash’ – the only overseas-trained horse to win the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize.

If the content does not automatically load, you can view the video on the main At The Races website

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Watch FWD Champions Day at Sha Tin live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Sunday 26th April from 5.30 am.


Nicholas Godfrey on FWD Champions Day
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