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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Hong Kong horses punched above their weight again in 2017-18 but there's room for a champion - w

It was kind of a weird statistic to wheel out post-season that Hong Kong’s racehorses won all but one of the international Group Ones for the season, considering how few of those races featured any other competition.

Only Highland Reel was able to remove a Group One trophy from Hong Kong on the one meeting where visitors were here in numbers – Longines HKIR in December - so there is some basis to local pride there but legitimate foreign visitors were hard to find that day and especially over the rest of the calendar.

It seems a familiar song in recent years - a number of new Group One target meetings have cropped up to compete for an elite group of animals that does not increase so getting star-studded internationals gets no easier.

The club did attract a foreign runner for the first time to the Champions & Chater Cup but the roll call was slightly little disappointing for the inaugural Champions Day in the Hong Kong spring, perhaps impacted by the Australian quarantine ban and still bedding down as an event.

The other figures that the club is nowadays, perhaps rightly, fond of showing off do show that Hong Kong defies mathematics in its top end performance but there is some explanation required there too.

Hong Kong has only 0.7 per cent of the world’s racehorse population but was home to about 10 per cent of the world’s best racehorses list with 22 names.

That’s impressive but the two propositions are linked – Hong Kong horses are earning their place on that list largely through performances at Sha Tin, where they have a home ground advantage.

The success on foreign tracks probably peaked in 2014, with two Group Ones and a Group Three in Dubai as well as a two Group Ones in Singapore, but the shutting down of Singapore’s international program and Dubai switching back to dirt from Tapeta did slow things to a trickle.

Hong Kong’s equine talent has kept chipping away in recent years at overseas features, albeit not the very peak Group One events and participation was down considerably this season.

But 2017-18 gave some reasons for optimism, with Southern Legend

taking advantage of a reopening of Singapore to take the Kranji Mile and the Lion City resumes a full international program next season.

And Werther’s strong second in the Takarazuka Kinen (a race which should stand out as a potential annual target for Hong Kong, given its place in the calendar) was another excellent indicator, while Western Express was best described as brave in the Yasuda Kinen.

There has been some recycling of the top gallopers over the course of the season, with the retirement of former Group One winners Contentment, Giant Treasure and Peniaphobia, top class sprinter Amazing Kids has also ridden into the sunset and there has been talk that Mr Stunning will leave the John Size yard during the summer and take up a new home with Frankie Lor. Read into that what you will.

Although Beauty Generation won the Horse Of The Year title for his three Group One wins, Pakistan Star would be most people’s choice as the captain of the Hong Kong team looking forward and the one with "champion" potential.

He had a bizarre season when he looked at one point more likely to be barred from racing than to win a Group One, after he pulled up to a walk again in a trial and had to undergo a gruelling process to be allowed to race again.

But, by season’s end, his behavioural issues appeared behind him and a stunning QE II Cup win was the single best performance of the season before he capped his short campaign in the Champions & Chater. There have been mutterings from the camp about potential overseas sorties next season and he looks the horse most capable of headlining, while Werther isn't getting any younger but still has the engine and Time Warp may recover his form after a summer break.

The John Size sprinters are a powerful team, with Hot King Prawn soon to join the group of Ivictory, D B Pin and Beat The Clock, although none (and we include Mr Stunning here) was able to put his stamp on the season by dominating.

Over further, Size’s Derby winner, Ping Hai Star, was one of the more impressive victories in that race in recent years and he heads a four-year-old bunch that we always hope will emerge from the summer ready to take a step up to challenge the older Group One stars.

Already, stayer Exultant has indicated that is likely but not all the best four-year-olds finished behind Ping Hai Star in the Derby either. Caspar Fownes seems to have worked the oracle with Rise High, who was messing his races up by overracing early in the campaign and missed the Derby but finished the season in flying form and Fownes has earmarked him for Group stardom next season. Talents like Sacred Elixir and Good Standing missed the big classics through injury too and could emerge as players.

Since Able Friend’s departure, there has been no standout in the milers but they remain solid and hard to beat at home in any year, and four-year-olds like Nothingilikemore, Singapore Sling and perhaps The Golden Age, offer hopes that they will measure up to the group that already includes Seasons Bloom, veteran Beauty Only, Pingwu Spark and Fifty Fifty.

Looking forward, the increased prizemoney for the HKIR meeting helps it to keep its place amongst world international target meetings, while the club was happy enough with Champions Day, when the visitors were limited to two Japanese stayers, Japan-based Godolphin sprinter Fine Needle and Godolphin's subsequent Royal Ascot-winning sprinter, Blue Point..

“We think spring Champions Day with the three Group Ones combined for the first time was a great success and we will further expand this. We have a new sponsor to be announced soon,” said Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. “Across the board, our prizemoney next season rises 5 per cent but we have lifted the HKIR features by 10 per cent overall to maintain the brand as the turf world championships. The Mile and Cup will remain the richest in the world for their category of race, while the Sprint remains the richest turf sprint in the world wherein the stake money is not provided by owners.”

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