Japanese Horse of the Year Maurice (Jpn) crowned his glittering career with a tremendous display in Sunday’s $3.2 million Hong Kong Cup (G1) at Sha Tin. The 3-5 favorite evinced a flair for the dramatic, however, as though to build suspense and give his fans one last thrill.
In fact, the Hong Kong Cup offered drama even before the start. Defending champion A Shin Hikari (Jpn), ever on the verge of histrionics, got away from his handlers in the saddling enclosure and ran off. Thankfully, he was apprehended quickly enough, and a vet check ensured he hadn’t done any damage – physically anyway, but none can vouch for his precarious mental state.
As the field made its way to post, Zac Purton (already a star on the card with wins in the Hong Kong Sprint [G1] with Aerovelocity [NZ] and Hong Kong Mile [G1] with Beauty Only [Ire]) dismounted from Secret Weapon (GB) behind the gate. The vet was once more summoned, and there was a delay as he looked Secret Weapon over. His girth strap adjusted, Secret Weapon was judged good to go.
Then once the gates clanged open, Maurice caused hearts to jump in throats when he missed the break, and found himself much farther back early. Ace rider Ryan Moore, ever one to keep cool, gave him time to settle and rode with the utmost confidence. Spectators were likely more concerned. Instead of being perched within striking range of A Shin Hikari, he had a significant deficit that ballooned to double digits behind the tearaway leader.
A Shin Hikari had pulled a similar front-running stunt to upset last year’s Cup. With his margin expanding to nearly six lengths from the chasing Staphanos (Jpn) at the mile mark, A Shin Hikari still appeared to be going with gusto into the stretch. Could he actually pull it off despite his poor paddock manners?
But a blur was moving menacingly along the inside – Maurice was rapidly reaching top gear and scything through rivals who looked like slow-motion props. Simultaneously, A Shin Hikari began to fall apart, and Maurice had to alter course lest he gallop straight into him.
Motoring his penultimate 400 meters (about a quarter-mile) in :22.86 as he began to gain ground, Maurice sped an even faster final sectional of :22.79 to blow the field away. As he bounded three lengths clear, and polished off 2000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) in 2:00.95, it now seemed so silly to have ever had an anxious moment.
Moore certainly didn’t have one:
“He is a pleasure to ride 99 percent of the time. Just before the gates opened he made it a little bit more difficult.
“Fortunately there was good pace in the race and halfway down the back I thought it was sitting up nicely for him and it was just a matter of finding the room. As soon as he got room and I put him into gear he just let down exceptionally well.
“When I asked him, he picked up, and really he got to the front almost too soon. He was a special horse at a mile, and at 10 furlongs he’s even better. He has improved every time I have ridden him.”
Secret Weapon proved there was nothing to worry about with him by finishing best of the rest. Rattling home to edge Staphanos and Lovely Day (Jpn) for runner-up honors, Secret Weapon averted a Japanese sweep.
“He ran a great race – he’s really come of age,” Purton said of Secret Weapon, who was coming off a marquee win in the local prep, the Jockey Club Cup (G2). “He’s Hong Kong’s best mile and a quarter horse now for sure.”
Those who used to have a say in that department, Blazing Speed (fifth) and Designs on Rome (eighth), are looking past their prime. A Shin Hikari retreated to 10th in his career finale, a home run or strike-out type to the very end.
Maurice is also due to retire to stud for 2017, but trainer Noriyuki Hori wouldn’t confirm that the Cup was in fact his last race.
“That’s what they have been writing in the newspapers anyway,” said Hori, who earlier sent out Satono Crown to surprise Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase (G1), and made history as the first international trainer to turn a Hong Kong International Race double.
Hori has played the decisive role in Maurice’s emergence as an all-world champion. Only moving to his yard for 2015, Maurice went a perfect 6-0, highlighted by victories in the Yasuda Kinen (G1), Mile Championship (G1) and Hong Kong Mile. This term, the son of Screen Hero added the May 1 Champions Mile (G1) on his return trip to Sha Tin, placed second when not 100 percent in the June 5 Yasuda Kinen and in a rain-affected August 21 Sapporo Kinen (G2), and most recently proved himself at about 1 1/4 miles in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). His resume now reads 18-11-2-1.
By adding Sunday’s Hong Kong Cup to last year’s Mile score, Maurice became the first horse to win two different HKIR titles in its modern format. Jim and Tonic (Fr) won the precursor to the Mile, the about seven-furlong Hong Kong International Bowl (G2), in 1998 and annexed the Cup in 1999.
Moore deserves the final word on Maurice.
“Hori said to me on the way out, ‘Are you OK?’ and I told him ‘I’m always OK when I’m riding Maurice.’”