It is hard to underestimate the deflation felt in Hong Kong when Japanese superstar Almond Eye pulled out of her scheduled trip to the International Races at the 11th hour. It was a hefty blow to a meeting that needed a lift in the midst of the political troubles that have been largely responsible for a year-on-year drop of 2.3 million passengers passing through Hong Kong airport between August and October.
The protests and civil unrest are rarely seen midweek, so most horsemen arriving over the last few days have expressed amazement at how quiet this usually bustling city has become. A trip from the airport to downtown Hong Kong Island is taking around 30 minutes, when often it might normally take twice that time.
This is not the Hong Kong I knew of the 1970s and 1980s, when I was chief racing writer for the South China Morning Post, nor anything like the city I had witnessed evolving so magnificently on annual visits since.
For starters, locals have become politicised. Confusion over what is actually happening, and why, is dividing families and straining friendships. It is sad, especially as Hong Kongers never allowed things like that interfere with commercial endeavour previously.
But, that said, on the racing front, there has been enough preliminary excitement generated by watching the various contenders at Sha Tin every morning to say that this year’s renewal of the HKIR on Sunday is going to help a large portion of the community forget politics for a day and focus on some serious sporting action instead.
There are four international races carrying total prize money of US$11.9 million, and in Anthony Van Dyck (Vase), the Hong Kong Jockey Club have a ‘name’ from the top bracket in Europe, even if critics might point to this year’s Derby at Epsom being low on quality. A Derby winner will always carry special status, even in a so-called bad year.
The Tony Cruz-trained Exultant is regarded as superior staying material in Hong Kong — even horses running over a mile and a quarter are called stayers here — and there is good reason to believe he is in the best form of his life. Zac Purton, his partner, has already publicly expressed an ambition to land all four of the International races, and this is arguably the best of his quartet of big-race rides.
Both Anthony Van Dyck and Exultant will have a significant obstacle to overcome in the mile-and-a-half Vase. They have drawn very wide, and, before anybody tries to argue that is of little importance in a race over this distance, let me assure you it is of major importance.
Threat to Beauty Generation
It will be a highlight watching Ryan Moore (drawn 12) and Purton (14) both angling over to get a position near the rail in the charge up the home straight the first time.
Purton also rides the very promising 3-year-old Aethero, who takes on a talented bunch of older horses in the Sprint, over six furlongs. Champion trainer John Size will saddle five of the 13 runners, with the best of them likely to be Beat The Clock, who finished third in the same race last year.
Purton is also aboard defending champion Beauty Generation in the Mile, and, having won the last two runnings of the feature, he would normally be unbackable. But this time, he comes to the big day off the back of two shock defeats. For this reason, plenty will be wanting to take him on. John Size has Waikuku going particularly well and he could pose a real threat.
Aidan O’Brien will be flying in to saddle his three-strong contingent on the day, which includes the tough mare Magic Wand (Cup), who comes to Hong Kong following an arduous campaign in Melbourne, where she ran in the Cox Plate (4th), Melbourne Cup (tenth) and Mackinnon Stakes (won). Japanese contender Win Bright and the French filly Edisa look to be the dangers.