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By Anil Mukhi | 09 Dec 2016 |

Anil Mukhi

Racing in Hong Kong has made tremendous strides over the years and some of the world's top gallopers reside there and vie for levels of prize money that one can barely dream of. To test the locals against international competition, the HKJC (which dropped the "Royal" before its original name a couple of decades ago) has devised a series of four international feature races on turf. All are Group 1s sponsored by renowned horologists Longines, are run at Hong Kong's Sha Tin racecourse in December and are contested over the major distances, namely 1200m., 1600 m., 2000 m. and 2400 m.

This year's carnival is set for this coming Sunday, December 11th, and the first off will be the Longines Hong Kong Vase (2400 m.), due to see 14 rivals cross swords at 2:00 p.m. local (11:30 a.m. IST). The field contains last year's winner, Highland Reel (by Galileo), who has been in excellent form in his last two starts. If his exertions over a long season have not taken their toll, the Aidan O'Brien-trainee, with Ryan Moore up, should repeat, despite starting from the #10 stall. He is expected to start at around evens on the Tote.

Drawn inside him and thus enjoying a tactical advantage, are a pair of runners that like to dictate tactics, namely the British-trained Big Orange (by Duke Of Marmalade), shipped across by Michael Bell, and the Irish-bred Helene Happy Star (by Zamindar), from the local barn of John Moore. The former has been trying his luck in Australia lately and comes off a narrow defeat there under Damian Lane, his intended rider here. His trainer was bullish after the draw: "Seven is a lucky number in a lot of languages so that bodes well. It's not too low and it's not too high, it's almost exactly where I wanted to be. I felt beforehand somewhere between four and eight would be ideal so I'm very happy."

From France come Pascal Bary's Silverwave (by Silver Frost), Mme. Corinne Barbe-Barande's Garlingari (by Linngari) and Alain de Royer-Dupre's superbly-bred One Foot In Heaven (by Fastnet Rock) while Japan fields Satono Crown (by Marju), Smart Layer (by Deep Impact) and the ambitiously-campaigned Nuovo Record (by Heart's Cry). The last-named has arrived in Hong Kong via Del Mar in California where she made history by scoring in a Grade 3 event last month, the first at the track by a product of the "Land of the Rising Sun"!

Forty minutes later, it is the turn of the fleet-footed to shine in the Longines Hong Kong Sprint (1200 m.). A pair of professionals both named Christophe (jockey Soumillon and schooler Clement respectively) combine with the American-bred Pure Sensation (by Zensational), fresh from a narrow defeat in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Very consistent at his home track, Lucky Bubbles (by Sebring) must surely be right there at the finish, while Britain's Growl (by Oasis Dream) has it all to do from draw 12.

A similar predicament faces pre-race fancy Big Arthur (by Sakura Bakushin O), who is scheduled to start even wider in stall #13. The last-named has Ryan Moore aboard in an effort to work out the puzzle that the post position has handed him. It must be added that last year Peniaphobia (by Dandy Man) was able to prevail despite setting off from gate #14 – this time the Silvestre de Sousa-ridden five-year-old starts on the extreme inside, adjacent to the rail, and this could prove to be a crucial advantage as the run-up to the turn is very short.

At 3:50 p.m. local (1:20 p.m. IST), a capacity field will tackle the Longines Hong Kong Mile (1600 m.), 10 of the 14 runners being residents of the former Crown Colony. A trio of Japanese-trained participants and a solitary European raider complete the line-up. The Irish hope hails, as one might expect, from the adventurous Ballydoyle yard of Aidan O'Brien in Ireland, and his name is Cougar Mountain (by Fastnet Rock) – what goes slightly against his chances is the fact that Ryan Moore has deserted him, leaving O'Brien to turn to his son, Donnacha, for the ride. Moore takes his place on the Noriyuki Hori-schooled Neorealism (by Neo Universe), which he obviously thinks has better prospects. The 2014 winner Able Friend (by Shamardal) was a runaway winner that year but could finish only fourth last year. Joao Moreira has been handed the task of rejuvenating the seven-year-old gelding.

The grand finale is the Longines Hong Kong Cup (2000 m.), to be run at 4:30 p.m. local (2 p.m. IST). The start-to-finish hero of 2015, Japan's A Shin Hikari (by Deep Impact) was ranked the best horse in the world earlier this year. If he is anywhere near that level of form he should waltz clear from his number one draw under the guidance of Yutaka Take and put the issue to bed.

Lying in wait will be another Japanese hope, Maurice (by Screen Hero), who is unbeaten in both his starts at Sha Tin, albeit both those victories came over the mile. Ryan Moore knows his mount well, having scored thrice with him, from 4 opportunities, including a score over the Cup trip. The pair will start from stall #8 and Maurice certainly looks like the proverbial good thing – he is quoted by British bookmakers at 6 to 4. Since joining the yard of Noriyuki Hori, the five-year-old has found the winning post on eight of ten occasions.

Apart from this pair, Japan is represented by three others, the best-fancied of which is the filly Queens Ring (by Manhattan Café), with transplanted Italian Mirco Demuro at the controls. France has a solitary challenger Elliptique (by New Approach), sent over by the legendary Andre Fabre. The Rothschild standard-bearer will be steered by Pierre-Charles Boudot but could start at longer than 30 to 1. Still, one suspects he hasn't made the long trip just for the warm weather….

Of the local brigade, one that has designs on the glittering trophy is Designs On Rome (by Holy Roman Emperor) who is amongst the most durable sons of his more-than-useful sire. His last effort was disappointing but just prior to that he earned a winning bracket. He has been re-united with the in-form Joao Moreira and must go close at the end on what will be the 29th starts of an illustrious career.