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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Could the locals come in from the cold in the Vase to sweep Longines HKIR?

Hong Kong’s balmy winter weather is taking a wicked turn for the worse this weekend, with a sharp temperature drop and even the remarkable prospect of rain but I wouldn’t be rushing to dive into your wet form for the Longines Hong Kong International Races on Sunday.

Even the Hong Kong Observatory has been complicit in adding extra variables to the ‘turf world championships’, with a “40 per cent chance of rain” forecast and any discussions in the drizzling Friday grey at trackwork were inevitably accompanied by prognostications up or down beat about the state of the going, depending on the speaker’s interests.

But here’s the thing. Only one Hong Kong international race has ever run on a track rated worse than good – the second Hong Kong Cup in 1989, when the race was run at the end of January. There are odd Group races run on softer classifications in the spring, from March onwards, but the drainage at Sha Tin is such that delving into actual wet form is rendered mostly pointless and, in the drier months of November-December, time you’ll never get back.

The most severe rain storms in Hong Kong – called black storms – bring rainfall at a minimum of 70mm per hour, but even they are not a proper match for the tracks, which drain at 100 mm per hour.

Which is all a long way around to saying don’t look for references to wet tracks in these tips.

This looms as the first HKIR meeting for a few years where the possibility of a local clean sweep is alive, although the racing gods are unlikely to allow it. Hong Kong’s strengths, as usual, lie with the sprinters and milers, a sound chance in the Cup at 2000m but, unusually, a better than bolter’s hope of a local winning the Vase at 2,400m. This normally belongs to Europe and Japan, bar Indigenous in 1998 and a brilliant Zac Purton ride on Dominant in 2013 that simply fluked the visitors.

But Sunday sees three of the four locals with a touch of stamina as well as form – enigmatic Pakistan Star supported by Eagle Way and Exultant – in what is a deep and fascinating race.

It has been hard to get a real push for Latrobe as a genuinely top horse – he won an Irish Derby that seems to have had few fans and more recently was second in a Mackinnon Stakes in Melbourne that didn’t look vintage, but the three-year-olds have had a good year on the international Group One stage. It’s an age group under-represented over the years in the Vase but those who have turned up have run well more often than not, and usually outperformed market expectations, even though only Daryakana and Highland Reel have won at three. He races handy – which may or may not be a plus depending on how greedily the riders on Crocosmia, Salouen and Rostropovich covet the front in what promises to be a truly-run race – and is unbeaten at the distance. (UPDATE: Latrobe was found mildly lame left front foot in the Saturday morning vet check - will have a further vet exam on Sunday before being allowed to run.)

The nearest thing to a marquee horse here is Waldgeist, trained by Andre Fabre, who didn’t fire on a shifty track at the Breeders’ Cup when a distant fifth but was a solid, every chance fourth in the Arc prior after four straight wins in lesser events in the French summer. Pakistan Star’s issues are not with talent but with his head and if he turns up he is capable of handling these horses – he won comfortably over Exultant in his only attempt at 2400m. There’s a good tip around for Sir Michael Stoute’s improving stayer Mirage Dancer but his prospects did suffer at the draw, while Dermot Weld-trained mare Eziyra stays well and was another who didn’t appear to turn up at the Breeders’ Cup meeting on a dodgy track.

LATROBE 1 Waldgeist 2 Pakistan Star 3 Eziyra 4.

The locals will win the Hong Kong Sprint, with the most interest in tactics on Mr Stunning and a barrier draw that brought last year’s runner-up D B Pin back into the game.

In two lead-ups, Hot King Prawn has been able to cross Mr Stunning early, control a soft tempo then kick too well, but this is the grand final and whether he gets the same stroll to or in the lead is the query. Not that there are many who can do much about it – he has brilliant gate speed and switches off as soon as asked, so his rider Joao Moreira will have no qualms firing him out and looking to cross from gate 11. The next quickest is Ivictory, a stablemate who has been overracing so on both counts unlikely to try to contest the front, so if there is to be a fly in the ointment for the Prawn, it has to be his former stablemate, last year’s winner Mr Stunning, formerly with John Size but now in the hands of his former protege Frankie Lor (with Size, right) a big moment for the trainer in just his second season.

Mr Stunning was pushed off the track midrace by Ivictory and raced wide on the circle when beaten a half length by Hot King Prawn last time, giving him five pounds (2.2kg). Now they are on level terms but more importantly Mr Stunning will be fully fit now, so the question is whether his jockey Karis Teetan wants to try to make life difficult for Hot King Prawn early – it’s a tough quiz as he might win the race doing it or he might get them both beaten and open the way for Hot Kin Pawn's stablemate D B Pin, another of the powerful Size hand that also includes Beat the Clock.

D B Pin raced three wide all the way when runner-up last year, then wide all the way again when he beat Mr Stunning in the Group One in January before leg problems sidelined him. When he resumed last month, Sam Clipperton didn’t have much choice from the outside gate but to go back to last in the Jockey Club Sprint where all the action was up the front and he never fired a shot. But he has trialled well since, will be fitter and an inside draw places him stalking the first couple and he is the knockout in what otherwise would look a two-horse race.

The surprise packet is Little Giant, who beat Humidor in a maiden in New Zealand as a young horse and his progress in Hong Kong has been in slow motion due to health issues but he has still assembled a lifetime record of 5 wins from 7 and is ready to break into the top grade. Zac Purton jumped off Ivictory to ride him, he might want more pace than he gets depending on how the leaders play it, but he will hit the line.

MR STUNNING 1 Hot King Prawn 2 D B Pin 3 Little Giant 4.

I won’t spend too much time on this because Beauty Generation will win.

Defeat only looks possible if he doesn’t turn up for some reason and there is the possibility at least that he was flattened by his gutbuster in the lead-up win, when he basically ran full pelt for 1400m. He was completely empty on the line but the chasers had already emptied out somewhere earlier trying to chase him. If he has recovered, and he is the hands of John Moore, who has a fair record of getting them right for big events, he will win. The barrier draw in 12 didn’t make his chance worse, it made it better because the horse that looked his main danger, Japan’s Persian Knight, is less well equipped to deal with gate 14 than the favourite is to handle 12. There is little pace, Purton will push over to the lead or outside one and be the one going clear in the straight. Ignore the chat about him running off the track last time – he does it just about every start, it’s just the first time the world seems to have noticed because it was more exaggerated, due to the farrier clipping a toenail a touch close the week before.

The Hong Kong miler division is not as good as usual, with the exception of one horse, but Fifty Fifty has been stepped back up to a mile after connections tossed out a two-start campaign to convert him to a sprinter – he has drawn well and can definitely fill the quinella. Then you’re out to the Japanese, with the draw swinging things back to Mozu Ascot over Persian Knight. Mozu Ascot had some sad stories in the Mile Championship at Kyoto as the beaten favourite while Persian Knight spent the race getting inside runs and there was just under 4 lengths between at the finish. The draw and better luck might see the tables turned.

BEAUTY GENERATION 1 Fifty Fifty 2 Mozu Ascot 3 Persian Knight 4.

The highlight race, Hong Kong’s richest race, the Cup, has fallen short of its billing this year but it looks the race where Japan should make an impact, and the pace is an overwhelming point of interest. Last year’s winner Time Warp was able to dictate 12 months ago in the lead but in recent starts his year-younger brother, Glorious Forever, has burst on the scene in Hong Kong as a tearaway leader. The pair staged a brutal cutthroat duel in the lead-up Jockey Club Cup and destroyed themselves, allowing Eagle Way to score a surprise victory, but there is every chance it happens again here. Trainer Tony Cruz has insisted Zac Purton will lead on Time Warp, who has never won a race in Hong Kong without leading, but neither has Glorious Way, so this is a standoff that would make Mexico proud and likely plays into the hands of the raiders.

Moreira’s ride Sungrazer comes off a good second at the top level in Japan in the Autumn Tenno Sho behind Rey De Oro, and that’s good enough to make him favourite, while the mare Deirdre has form probably not far off his in the land of the rising sun. Both are run-ons who will appreciate a squabble on the front end. The knockout is Stormy Antarctic, British-trained but Hong Kong-owned by the same family which has Time Warp. Stormy Antarctic has been to Sha Tin for the 2017 QE II Cup, overraced badly and failed but he is a new man since he was gelded early this year. He settles now and has been brilliantly consistent, not missing the top four in 7 starts since including two wins and a last-start fourth to Roaring Lion in a Group One 1600m at Ascot. He does seem to lack a killer punch but he might not need one to run very well if the killer punches are being exchanged by Time Warp and Glorious Forever up front and it’s last man standing.

SUNGRAZER 1 Deirdre 2 Time Warp 3 Stormy Antarctic 4.

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