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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Too easy, too overrated? Longines HKIR is done and dusted for another year

After the invitation to Almond Eye had been made, accepted and her presence expected, the absence of arguably the world's current best racehorse did detract from the 2019 Longines Hong Kong International Races - at the very least in lost anticipation.

At least her colours turned up on Joao Moreira to win with Glory Vase.

On the face of it, not a vintage year for HKIR and you have to wonder how much of that was tied up in the civil unrest and an unwillingness to attend due to perceived personal safety dangers. The human attendance was down massively, from 3 years of crowds of 100,000 or near enough to it to under 30,000. The visitor drop included nearly all of the representatives of event sponsor Longines, prompting a rumour to do the rounds of schism between Hong Kong Jockey Club and its partner. Fears for personal safety were at the core, though, and there must have been some impact on the equine visitors as well.

In addition, the visiting horses suffered for the presence, anticipated or real, of Almond Eye in the Cup and Beauty Generation in the Mile - both scared others away but it was a false alarm. She didn't turn up at all, he just didn't turn up as the horse he was, but there wasn't enough notice about either to fully stock the two races with eager opposition.

Yet, in the same week when leading British trainer John Gosden opined that the future of horseracing lies in "the Far East", it was still mildly amusing to see a jibe from a British journalist around the quality of the racing for $HK 93 million in prizemoney.

If it's such a soft target, where are the horses coming from racing's "old world" nations like Great Britain or France to cash in at Sha Tin?

And not just in 2019, when personal safety might have been presumed to be a factor.

Once upon a time, those nations ran the day, along with Australia, and now none of them are a factor.

A strong nod to Aidan O'Brien's fresh enthusiasm for HKIR aside, Britain and Europeans in general have become virtual no-shows for the Sha Tin features, just as they have for the Japan Cup.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has long branded the HKIR day as the turf world championships but that branding is barely holding on by its fingernails and the "equine Ryder Cup" looks a more appropriate tag.

Hong Kong and Japan face off each year and the scoreline from the last 24 HKIR events now stands at Hong Kong 12, Japan 10 and Ireland's Highland Reel the remaining two.

This graphic shows the declining influence of the old powers. Australia hasn't won a race at the meeting since 2001; Great Britain's last win was 2012, with Hong Kong-owned Red Cadeaux, and 2010 before that. For France, Dunaden's Vase win in 2014 was the last highlight and the only win since 2011.

With each passing year, it becomes harder to attract the right French and British horses, if they even exist.

Even the Vase, which was virtually owned by the Europeans and British for most of its existence, is becoming fallow ground.

In Australia this week, the three wins for Japan were read as further confirmation - after Japanese wins in the Caulfield Cup and Cox Plate during Melbourne's spring racing carnival - that the Japanese horses are taking ownership of world racing.

Hong Kong racing apparently exists in a bubble until it's time to play then the Japanese arrive, shoot the lights out and take the gold.

That might be overshooting the mark - twelve months earlier the Japanese team didn't manage to win a race at Sha Tin's showpiece - but at least the Japanese do keep turning up.

And one of more interesting aspects of Sunday's results was the platform from which the Japanese winners arrived.

Over the years, I've seen so many connections declaring overseas tests all systems go, after a course record, three-length margin win that represented a horse's career peak.

In terms of form analysis, the likelihood is that the horse won't perform to that level next time, especially if you throw in travel and a new environment. An honourable defeat, on the other hand, usually brings furrowed brows, hand-wringing and instant abandonment of the overseas venture.

Owners and trainers in Japan seem to have much more trust in their horses' ability to produce a 'normal performance' on the big day than relying too much on what happened last time.

Glory Vase (sixth), Admire Mars (ninth) and Win Bright (sixth) were all coming off defeats at home, the first two as short-priced favourites, but their connections showed faith that those defeats were not normal and that their charges would produce something better at Sha Tin.

Sure, it can't be easy to green light a trip away after losing a race one expected to win at home, but it's a refreshing, different approach that has borne fruit in the past for Japanese as well. For example, Eishin Preston, who won 3 international events at Sha Tin, arrived every time off a domestic defeat.

And there was something nice about Masami Matsuoka adding the HK Cup to his QE II Cup on Win Bright.

There was a time about a decade ago when it was felt the Japanese horses were world beaters but their owners and trainers gave the rest of the world a chance by taking their Japanese jockeys overseas with them. That has turned around more recently, with the likes of Ryan Moore, Christophe Lemaire, Joao Moreira, Mirco Demuro, Christophe Soumillon and other foreign riders doing the honours and it has shown in the results.

For what it's worth, Matsuoka, who is not rated amongst the best practitioners at home, has pulled out two terrific rides on this horse at Sha Tin in two appearances.

His positive early tactics on Sunday not only put the horse into the fray in a slowly-run race, it meant he was occupying the space on most maps where Ryan Moore was expected to come out around the leaders at the top of the straight on Magic Wand. Plan B for Moore was nowhere to go and that was the difference in the result.

With the exception of Lord Kanaloa, the Japanese still have ground to make up when it comes to the sprinters, though, which was the highlight for Hong Kong - hardly a surprise since Danon Smash was the only foreign rep.

Arguably Japan's best sprinter, he ran a worthwhile race, which has been the pattern generally from the Japanese in the shortest of the G1s. Beat The Clock confirmed his status as Hong Kong's champion sprinter of last season, while the unreasonably-large bubble around Aethero popped but he pretty much ran to form by some reckoning.

His third let down the legions of fans who seemed to have already handed him the Silent Witness mantle but it was very solid from the three-year-old and a performance which has since become clouded by an extra layer of query when he was found to have a fever on Monday.

He got the Pakistan Star treatment from the knee-jerkers of social media but my view has not changed - in six months, certainly this time next year, and provided he remains sound, they won't see which way Aethero goes. He may be acknowledged as world's best sprinter at some point but it was a big leap for a late spring 3yo at start number 7 and he didn't make this leap as he had done others.

The connection between attendance and betting grows ever more tenuous in current circumstances and, while the Hong Kong Jockey Club prefers to have attendance AND turnover, it settled for a $HK 105 million rise in turnover for the day to $HK 1.7 billion. The lion's share of that increase from commingled bets from overseas, which were a record $HK 335 million.

One year in Australia many years ago, when commentators were decrying the standard of the top features one Melbourne spring, I wrote that big races events have a way of upholding their place in the psyche of fans, however they might look in the lead up.

And that was the case on Sunday.

Ricchi Kondo's family and the people around Admire Mars were understandably emotional to see his colours win the Mile just a week or two after the owner had passed away. Beat The Clock's win brought John Size's emotions to the surface - a Halley's Comet-like event - after the Sprint.

Glory Vase stuck out as the big victory of the day and Matsuoka's underdog qualities made Win Bright's win a popular one, even if a Coolmore win might have been the fingers-crossed result for local administrators. All the while, ticking in the background was the story of Zac Purton's tough day out after starving himself for weeks for, Aethero, his lightest ride in 8 years, and coming up empty in his quest to supersede Gerald Mosse as the winningest rider in HKIR history.

Who knows where we'll be at this time in 2020 as far as the civil unrest situation goes, but there's no reason to think the show won't go on then as now.

Let's hope the old world contention from some that the HKIR features are money for jam, or that the local horses are totally overrated in their bubble, will bring a renewed interest from that part of the world in plundering them. Try to bring something worthy of the day.

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