Japanese contenders make up nearly half of this year’s Gr1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) field at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Last year’s winner A Shin Hikari, Japan’s 2015 Horse of the Year Maurice, top-class filly Queens Ring, multiple Gr1 winner Lovely Day, and the ever persistent Staphanos are all gunning to take the Cup back across the Japan Sea.
The Cup has a lot of meaning with the Japanese since it was one of the first major international events won by a Japanese-trained horse, Fujiyama Kenzan in 1995.
They have won the race three other times with Midnight Bet in 1998, Agnes Digital in 2001, and of course A Shin Hikari last year. The sheer number of entries alone proves Japan’s desire to claim the Cup for its own yet again.
To add to the drama, two of the five runners will be making their final career appearance; A Shin Hikari, the enigmatic star, and Maurice, the imposing champion.
Maurice is making his third appearance in Hong Kong in the span of twelve months, having claimed last year’s Gr1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile and this spring’s G1 Champions Mile at Sha Tin.
The son of Japan Cup winner Screen Hero, with nothing left to prove over a mile, captured the 2000m Gr1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) back in October. Afterward, his connections decided against running in the Mile once more and aimed instead for the prestigious Cup.
Ryan Moore rode him in to his most recent Gr1 victory and will be in the irons again. He said: “I think that 2000m at Tokyo is far more challenging than the course in the Hong Kong Cup, it will not be an issue.”
After riding the five-year-old in his final fast work, Moore shouted to the Japanese media, “He is a very happy horse!”
A win this Sunday will put him in the lead for a second consecutive Japan Horse of the Year title and make him only the second Japanese horse, after triple Sha Tin winner Eishin Preston, to win three Gr1 titles abroad.
The latter fact also applies to defending Cup Champion A Shin Hikari, back at the scene of his first Gr1 win; he too will attempt to bow out a hero.
Earlier this year he stunned the world with a spectacular performance in the Gr1 Prix d’Ispahan at Chantilly in France, but those who saw his victory in the 2015 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup were not surprised at all.
His follow-up at Ascot was disappointing, as was his performance in the Gr1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) in which he faded to 12th of 15.
In many ways, the grey son of Deep Impact finds himself in a similar position as last year, for which, all things considered, isn’t the worst position to be in.
“He is a very talented horse, but he either wins really well or loses really badly. As you know, he is a difficult horse, but overseas racing suits him mentally. Less paddock time and pre-race walking allows him to remain calmer than he would in Japan,” said trainer Masanori Sakaguchi.