Panthalassa – The Star Of The Show?

Featuring four Group One races

On Sunday at Sha Tin, the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races proudly boast the label of the city’s flagship annual event. Bringing together top horses and jockeys from around the globe, this event has become widely recognised as the Turf World Championships since its beginnings in 1988. 

Featuring four Group One races on the day, incorporating the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint, the LONGINES Hong Kong Mile, the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup, and the LONGINES Hong Kong Vase, the Turf World Championships offer a total stakes prize of an enormous HK$110 million.

Yahagi hopes for the win as Panthalassa guarantees the show (Pic – HKJC)

Every generation of racing fans has at least one memory of the brave but ultimately doomed front-runner; the horse that, on the biggest stage, opens up a seemingly unassailable lead, only to suffer agonising defeat at the last.

Think Stay Gold and Yutaka Take hunting down Frankie Dettori on Ekraar in the 2001 G1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) or, for British jump racing devotees of a certain vintage, Crisp going 30 lengths clear in the Grand National only to capitulate to Red Rum in the dying strides, writes Scott Burton.

A habitual front-runner who had already burnished his international Group 1 credentials with a dead heat in the Gr1 Dubai Turf (1800m), Panthalassa went so far clear in the Tenno Sho Autumn six weeks ago under veteran jockey Yutaka Yoshida, that trainer Yoshito Yahagi must have believed victory was his.

It took an exceptional performance from Equinox to haul the five-year-old son of Lord Kanaloa in, with only the final five metres out of 2,000 costing Panthalassa a memorable success.

“I was a bit disappointed in the Tenno Sho because I thought he could do it but I was pleased that the Japanese racing fans were very excited (by his performance),” says Yahagi.

Excitement is an understatement as Yoshida took the well-known strength of Panthalassa to maintain a gallop and went all in, still holding a huge advantage turning for home before his stride shortened in an unforgiving final sprint.

It looked a gruelling effort but Yahagi believes he has Panthalassa in even better condition, sparking thoughts of his potential to replicate compatriot A Shin Hikari’s freewheeling success in the Gr1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) seven years ago.

“For his last run in the Tenno Sho he was not at his absolute best and he has been improving and improving,” says Yahagi. “So he was not so tired (after the race) and it has been easy for him to recover following his last run. I think he has improved since then.”

That last statement should strike fear into connections of the other 11 runners, with even a widish draw and a short run to the first bend over the Sha Tin 2000m track of little concern to Yahagi.

“I was very proud of his race in Dubai and to dead-heat with John Gosden (trainer of Lord North),” says Yahagi.

“This time he has drawn the number eight but I don’t care about the barrier draw at all. The one thing that is sure is he will go in front. I don’t worry about the draw.”

Panthalassa was able to get across from a wide gate to head no less a horse than Titleholder into the first turn of the G1 Takarazuka Kinen on his first and only try at 2200m in June.

If anything in the lineup here wishes to deprive him of the lead by the time the field reaches the back straight, they may well have to pay a heavy price.

Yahagi has entrusted the 47-year-old Yoshida with the job of setting the right fractions in each of Panthalassa’s five starts this season.

In Yoshida’s long career the Gr1 Yushun Himba (2400m) featured as the middle leg of a Triple Tiara campaign with Mejiro Dober in 1997 – he rode the daughter of Mejiro Ryan in every one of her 21 career starts including five Group 1 victories – before winning Japan’s version of the Oaks again in 2002 on Smile Tomorrow.

Never a flashy star of the Japanese weighing room, Yoshida has earned a large reservoir of trust from the trainers he works with.

Yahagi says of his rider: “He has been a friend of mine for thirty years and I have a lot of respect for him because he is very brave to go in front. I have confidence in him.”

Panthalassa has joined a veritable production line of Group 1 talents to roll out of Yahagi’s Ritto stable in the last six or so years; Real Steel, (Dubai Turf); Lys Gracieux (W.S Cox Plate and Arima Kinen); Loves Only You (QEII Cup, Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, LONGINES Hong Kong Cup) and Triple Crown and G1 Japan Cup (2400m) hero Contrail.

A man who is unafraid to cut a distinctive figure on a racetrack anywhere in the world, Yahagi is modest when it comes to analysing such a remarkable run in the top races at home and abroad.

“I don’t know, I’ve just been a very lucky boy the last five years,” says Yahagi. “My staff – my assistants and my grooms – have had a lot of experience and the team has improved. I think that is the main reason.”

Loves Only You had a particular fondness for Sha Tin, her late-closing style producing a pair of spellbinding Group 1 victories in 2021 and providing Yahagi with a belated Hong Kong breakthrough after Lys Gracieux was twice narrowly denied, first by Exultant in the 2018 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase and then Win Bright back at the same venue the following April.

“It was important to win in Hong Kong and the experience I gained from Lys Gracieux helped with Loves Only You,” says Yahagi.

“I don’t think Panthalassa is yet of the same quality as Loves Only You and Lys Gracieux. Their last seasons were each at a higher level. But he is only five and he is still improving. I’m not worried, maybe next year he will improve again.”

Yahagi may not be worried but his rivals ought to be, as Yoshida buckles up for another thrilling ride.

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