Arrival in Hong Kong will excite even the most timid: a world-class horse racing meeting, embedded in generous hospitality, hosted in Asia’s version of New York. Tradition meets modern class in a jungle that never sleeps.
Cruising along after a long haul flight, with the city lights illuminating your face along the way: bed will have to wait. Hong Kong’s allure drags you in, taking you along high-end shops and colourful Christmas light displays.
Drinks at rooftop bars, watching the harbour view from the ferry, the metropolitan adventure truly beckons. But low and behold, at a certain stage one starts wondering why the eyelids feel so heavy in the morning at track work, and why the coffee doesn’t seem to hit you up as much as it used to. Your bed, your hotel room, a couch, a flat surface, anything will do as long as you can close your eyes for a mere second.
As the old English poem goes: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”; even Lan Kwai Fong was quiet for Saturday night standards, with the racing delegation seizing the opportunity to have an early night before the big day.
Alarms went off, awakening those in even the deepest of slumbers, time to get up, this is what you came for. Upon arrival at the track it was a bustle of media setting up their stations; be careful with the coffee next to the Macbooks!
Race attendants were treated to an opening ceremony before the first runners jumped, including traditional Hong Kong drum players, and a singer. The pop star was a straight hit with the local fan base, leaving the international journalists scratching their heads; watching a teenager prancing about wearing shiny sunglasses, underneath the retractable roof of the Sha-Tin parade ring, requires a specific taste. Nonetheless, it was a good opening for the 2016 renewal of the Hong Kong International Races, with the four-balcony strong parade ring filled to the brim with punters, owners and media alike.
Shortly after, the first three races of the day allowed for all to get into the rhythm. By the time the first of the international races came round, people were in full focus mode, anticipating what was to come.
The Longines Hong Kong Vase featured globetrotter and international darling Highland Reel (IRE), who was out to capture another trophy after a year of money runs, including a Breeders’ Cup Turf victory and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes romp. The bay colt finished his season in style, merely hampered by local champion Joao Moreira catching him just before the line on Satono Crown (JPN). Gasps and passionate screams accompanied the pair as they went head to head for glory; the Irish jet setter suffered defeat at the hands of a Japanese gun, which went off at the right time.
Wide-eyed exchanges followed by utter amazement: the Longines Vase marked the start of a superbly executed Noriyuki Hori (JPN) double. Was it a lack of performance from the Ballydoyle representative? Certainly not. The Galileo-colt tuned in, showing fans the essence of the sport of kings during a confrontation at the highest level. The race made headlines around the world; one couldn’t ask for a better sporting performance to highlight Hong Kong’s racing event of the year.
For those who still think the four-year-old didn’t run up to standard, I would urge a quick look at the way the race was run. Highland Reel set a ferocious pace from the front, creating a four-length bridge between him and the field with over furlong left to the line, and finished eight lengths ahead of the field together with eventual winner Satono Crown. The final time of 2.26.22 was a solid 1.8 seconds below the standard time of 2.28.05, followed by Highland Reel’s 2.26.30. Go hard or go home never resonated so well.
A nice addition was “Magic Man” Joao joining the exclusive group of those to have completed the HKIR set, with the only other member being Gerald Mosse. The ever talkative and cheerful Brazilian responded by saying: “That’s great, that’s a dream.”
Once the highly anticipated Group 1 races started, the day itself flew by; there was no time to take a breather, as the horses for the next race would already be on show, or worse: making their way out to the turf.
The day’s second Group 1, deemed the world turf sprint contest, saw veteran Aerovelocity (NZ) reclaiming his crown under the proven Purton/O’Sullivan (HK) partnership, heading a Hong Kong quartet. The young and speedy Lucky Bubbles (AUS) came close in catching the eight-year-old, but found no luck in his running and ran out of time when pursuing the eventual winner. It was a top quality race, although the title of world turf sprint might not be fully justified. Notably, the two European contenders never truly showed up, and Japanese bomb Big Arthur didn’t live up to expectations either.
A brief gasp for air, in shape of a hot class one handicap was on the cards, leaving the international media to grab a quick bite to eat, a coffee and a second to catch up on post-race reports. Stress levels were certainly running high, with round-the-clock online news feeds requiring immediate publication of race analysis and accompanying photographs.
The Longines Mile contest was up next, which one would think to have attracted plenty of European entries, with various top rated European milers gracing the International rankings. Unfortunately the representation was limited, and Hong Kong locals snatched the race in similar fashion to the Longines Sprint held previously. However, one former Champion reconfirmed his status at the top, by achieving a Group 1 double on the biggest race day of the year; Purton’s screams of joy, standing up in the saddle on his mount the Anthony Cruz (HK) trained Beauty Only (IRE) after Longines Mile victory, were a pure exhibition of relief, adrenalin and joy. For another five minutes I heard his roar in the back of my head, leaving me wondering if he actually screamed that loud or I had imagined it.
The last of the features was the richest and most contested: the Longines Hong Kong Cup. It was the reason half of Japan’s media attended the meeting, with the number of journalists well into three digits. Labelled the Japanese battle of the season, stallion prospects Maurice (JPN) and A Shin Hikari (JPN) were set for a showdown. As previously indicated, due to day’s high pace, I decided to firmly position myself on the entrance to the track, to have a good look at the runners before they head out. This clever idea meant that I missed the bustle that went on in the paddock beforehand: A Shin Hikari was exploring the course on his own; the feisty grey wasn’t planning on co-operating on the day. It might have cost him the actual contest, but the dominance on display by winner Maurice suggests otherwise. The Hori trained entire slaughtered the field, much like Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton would firmly demolish any contenders in a B-rated race event. The cheer from the crowd when Maurice caught up with hard front-runner A Shin Hikari was loud enough to prescribe all with throat pastilles. A more than justified cheer, with last year’s Mile winner Maurice clocking in at 2.00.95: half a second quicker than standard.
Personally, riding a racehorse from the stand never seemed like an appealing conduct of behaviour. However, when the last race of the day saw the Internet sensation and my favourite Pakistan Star (GER), nee Nina Celebre, enter the track, I must admit to needing a bit of hot tea with honey afterwards myself. I rode him home, in my mind at least, shouting loudly: “C’mon baby!”. I might not have had a penny on him, but I wanted the big bay to win. We all wanted to witness another display of the tremendous turn of foot previously shown by the quirky gelding.
And with that final race, the 2016 version of the Longines Hong Kong International Races concluded, formally, at least. Plenty of participants, behind the scenes or in front, celebrated yet another spectacular International Group 1 race meeting by adding an 11th race to the card. It was up the hill, a stiff two furlongs perhaps, finishing at a couple of local bars on Hong Kong Island.