In the weeks leading up to the 2019 LONGINES Hong Kong International Races, Silk Racing had three horses in three different races, all with a decent shot to take home the prize.
Almond Eye was getting by far the most attention out of the three. But with her defection, due to a fever prior to departure, the world’s eyes turned to Silk Racing’s next great hope, Gr1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile contender and two-time Gr1 winner Indy Champ.
The four-year-old son (pictured above) of Stay Gold is a horse that in any other year would have been the headliner from the start.
Winning both the Gr1 Yasuda Kinen and the Gr1 Mile Championship in one consecutive season is no easy feat and one most recently done by Maurice who then went on to impressively win the 2015 Gr1 Hong Kong Mile.
The “Beast from the East” has cast a large shadow for most Japanese runners hoping to make a name for themselves in Hong Kong ever since. Indy Champ is no different, but unlike previous challengers, he most closely mirrors Maurice in not only his most recent successes but also his entire career: both horses slowly worked their way up the ranks and, in Indy Champ’s case, he has run more consistently from the beginning than the Beast whose legend he seeks to challenge.
Out of 12 lifetime starts, Indy Champ has never been worse than fourth place and then only twice. He was a bit of a late bloomer as a two-year-old, winning his debut on the last racing day of the year in 2017. He was back in action just two weeks later, winning an allowance by a length and a quarter.
That spring he was entered in two races that could have potentially sent him down the classic road but instead he suffered his first defeat in the 1800m Gr3 Mainichi Hai where he finished third and again a month later in the 1600m Gr3 Arlington Cup, where he ran fourth for the first time. Even though he was only a length behind the winner, his connections took that as a sign and gave the colt a break.
He came back with a nail-biting second-place finish in a winners-of-two allowance in mid-June of 2018, but the race set him up perfectly to start a three-race win steak. After minor 1600m wins in July and December, he started off his four-year-old campaign with a bang.
An impressively maturing Indy Champ snapped up the Gr3 Tokyo Shimbun Hai, again at a mile, in February which included among the vanquished the 2016 Champion two-year-old, a multiple graded stakes winner, and an eventual Gr1-winning sprinter. In his next start, the Gr2 Milers Cup, he encountered the second time he would finish fourth, though only a length and a half behind the winner, the highly-talented 2017 champion two-year-old Danon Premium. The colt was given a month off and it proved a winning move.
Still only a one-time Gr3 winner, Indy Champ was entered in this year’s renewal of the Gr1 Yasuda Kinen (1600m), the highest profile mile race in Japan. He was up against seven Gr1 winners and seven other graded stake winners, most several times over.
With the awesome Almond Eye and Danon Premium in the race it seemed like the best he could hope for was third but after a bit of drama at the start and a skilled ride by Yuichi Fukunaga, there was no doubt who the champ was.
Indy Champ sprinted down the stretch to catch the speedy pace-setter Aerolithe and after a brief battle, got his neck in front to win the coveted prize. Despite earning automatic berth into the Breeders’ Cup Mile, it was soon decided that the now Gr1-winning Indy Champ would take in Hong Kong at the year’s end.
And so, after a four-month break for his impressive win against many of Japan’s best horses. He came back in October with an eye on Sha Tin. The bay ran third in the 1800m Gr2 Mainichi Okan, which ended up being an amazing prep race for his second Gr1 challenge, the Gr1 Mile Championship (1600m) in November.
Despite his performance in the Yasuda Kinen, Indy Champ went into the gates as only the third-favourite. A brilliant turn-of-foot saw him not just win but dominate with a length and a half victory over Danon Premium and fellow Hong Kong Mile contender Persian Knight was a further neck back in third.
He worked his way up the ladder of Japanese racing slowly during his three-year-old season and has become a true superstar in his own right as a four-year-old. In his Gr1 wins, he stopped the clock at 1m 30.9s and 1m 33.0s: While he still has to take on local superstar and two-time Hong Kong Mile winner Beauty Generation, on paper he has the speed to do so.
Stay Gold has not been known for his relaxed offspring, although the colt appeared at ease in his slower paces early this week. But his nerves were on full display during fast work on Wednesday when he pranced and shied away from the grandstand.
“He was a bit distracted by the grandstand but once we got him focused, he moved well.” said assistant trainer Kenichi Shono on Wednesday.
Prior to Thursday’s barrier draw Shono said: “He is getting better all the time. He really improved a lot from this summer when he won the Yasuda Kinen to the Mile Championship, which I think is evident in his performance. While the local horses here are very strong, he has kept that later condition very well I think in the lead up to this race.”
His connections seemed happy with the draw of post number three, and Damian Lane, who has had many a victory aboard Japanese-breds this past year is en route to take on not only the legendary Beauty Generation but also the legend of Maurice.
The vibe from the Indy Champ camp is one of confidence in their chances this weekend, so perhaps the nearly 400 shareholders of Indy Champ could be joining together in a boisterous rendition of “We are the Champions” on Sunday afternoon.