History of a racing rivalry: Japan and Hong Kong
Thirty years ago, Japan was unchallenged as the superpower in Asian racing. Today, it has a rival, not just in Asia but also in global terms, as Hong Kong, in spite of its tiny horse population and complete absence of a breeding industry, flexes its muscles as an international force. Paul Haigh looks at the growing racing rivalry between Hong Kong and Japan as the two Asian powerhouses prepare to do battle yet again, at Hong Kong’s Sha Tin racecourse in the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup on Sunday April 27 and the Champions’ Mile on May 4.
Great sporting rivalries usually involve competition between near equals. Geography is often a component too, though not a necessary one. A spot of history helps as well; and there is a fair bit of that between Hong Kong and Japan, although it would be quite wrong to suggest that any ancient animosity spills over into what is essentially a friendly spirit of competitiveness between the two.
Sometimes only one side is conscious of the rivalry. You might say that was the case near the end of the last century when most Japanese racing fans and professionals would hardly have been aware of the arrival on the world racing scene of the then British colony. Japan already had a magnificent breeding industry, a volume of betting turnover astonishing to all who noticed it, a level of public attention to the sport that was the envy of the world, and, in the Japan Cup, a race that was to become the paradigm for the upsurge of international competition that has taken place since Mairzy Doates and Cash Asmussen won the inaugural running for America of what was then the richest race in the world in 1981.
Hong Kong had no breeding industry. It had not long converted to fully professional racing after more than a century of amateurism and semi-professionalism. It had no international competition of any sort because its horses just weren’t good enough. What it did have was the advantage of legislation that decreed, in a betting-mad part of the world, that racing was to be the only legal betting game in town.
By 1993, Hong Kong had its own international races, albeit a small selection of G2s and G3s, as part of a deliberate policy initiated by the then Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club (RHKJC) to improve the standard of racing in Hong Kong, and raise Hong Kong’s image in the world at the same time. These were viewed at the time by overseas visitors – including the Japanese who would have been far too polite to have given any inkling of their attitude - with the sort of lofty condescension perhaps that English Premier League football clubs nowadays reserve for non-leaguers.
But the commitment to improving the quality of Hong Kong racing was initiated when the HKJC was still the RHKJC and continued after the political hand-back to China persisted. So did the legislation that made “the Club” one of the richest and most influential institutions in Hong Kong. Between them they have created the impetus that has made Hong Kong, even with a racehorses-in-training population that has never risen much above 1,200, a genuine force in international racing. Before too long they were bound to begin competition with their much mightier regional neighbour in the north.
The first recorded confrontation between a Japanese-trained horse and Hong Kong-trained horses took place on April 18, 1993 when Hokusei Ciboulette, trained by H Sugai and ridden by N Sugai, came over to contest the Hong Kong International Bowl, a 1,400-metre G3 race that was eventually to develop into the G1 Hong Kong Mile. Rather to the surprise of those who’d taken it for granted that a halfway decent Japanese horse would have too much firepower for even the best in Hong Kong, Hokusei Ciboulette finished 14th of the 14 runners.
In the next two years, seven Japanese runners made unsuccessful tilts at Hong Kong’s various international invitationals, gleaning between them just three fourth places before they finally managed to break their duck with Fujiyama Kenzan, who beat the locals and the internationals (in those days, the European and Australasian invaders tended not to be of the very highest calibre) in the Hong Kong International Cup, an 1,800 metre race that later became the 2,000 metre G1 Hong Kong Cup.
Meanwhile in 1994, emboldened by the rout of Hokusei Ciboulette, Hong Kong had sent out a one-horse raiding party of its own in the shape of the (by Hong Kong standards of the time) very good miler, Winning Partners. The race chosen was the 1,600 metre G1 Yasuda Kinen. Winning Partners finished 14th. Instantly disheartened, Hong Kong sent no more horses across the western Pacific for four years.
Their nerve returned in the form of famed trainer Ivan Allan. Allan was correctly convinced that the standard of Hong Kong horses was improving in parallel with the growing riches of the HKJC, which was by this time both the greatest single taxpayer and the greatest public benefactor in the city that was now the “Special Administrative Region of China.” He proved it first by sending Oriental Express to run second in the 1998 Yasuda Kinen, then again in 1999 by sending Indigenous to run second to Japan’s Special Week in the Japan Cup itself. Indigenous was probably Hong Kong’s first world-class racehorse, although the mid-1990s champion and sole winner of the Hong Kong Triple Crown, River Verdon, remains more celebrated.
The following year, Allan sent what may have been an even better horse, Fairy King Prawn, to tackle the Japanese milers in the Yasuda Kinen. On June 4, 2000, he got Hong Kong on the Japanese scoreboard at last. Some indication of the quality of performer needed to defeat the Japanese at home may be revealed by the fact that in terms of form Fairy King Prawn was very much the same horse as the great New Zealand mare Sunline, winner of 12 G1s, two Doncaster Handicaps, and the 2000 Cox Plate by seven lengths. Indeed he had something of a rivalry of his own with her, going down by just a short head after enjoying not quite as good a trip in the 2000 Hong Kong Mile, then beating her into third place behind Jim and Tonic in an epic three-way finish to the 2001 Dubai Duty Free.
Before Fairy King Prawn’s glory day in Tokyo, Japan had added another victory over Hong Kong thanks to Midnight Bet in the 1998 Hong Kong International Bowl. But the significance of the Ivan Allan-trained gelding’s triumph on Japanese soil was not lost on Japan’s racing community – and certainly not on Hong Kong’s that welcomed its hero home with great jubilation. It’s appropriate that his win should have occurred at the first meeting between horses from the two jurisdictions of the new millennium, a time when the Hong Kong International Races, then and for the next decade or more were sponsored by its “national” carrier Cathay Pacific Airlines.
A true rivalry requires uncertainty about the likely outcome. The result of the 2000 Yasuda Kinen marked the real beginning of a rivalry – intense but still friendly – which has continued to grow ever since.