March 29, 2023

Magical tops international cast of eight in Hong Kong Cup

Magical training at Sha Tin (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Most recently runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), Ballydoyle star Magical reverts to her usual trip of about 1 1/4 miles in Sunday’s $3.6 million Hong Kong Cup (G1), the anchor of a superb Hong Kong International Races program. The seven-time Group 1 heroine will meet seven rivals at Sha Tin, including defending champion Win Bright, Normcore, and Danon Premium from Japan; a resurgent Furore for the home team; as well as French shipper Skalleti.

Hong Kong Cup: Race 8 at Sha Tin, post time 3:30 a.m. (ET)

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Magical has scored six of her Group 1s in the vicinity of this distance, including her back-to-back wins in the Irish Champion (G1). When defending her title at Leopardstown Sept. 12, the Galileo mare gained revenge on Ghaiyyath, who had bested her in the Aug. 19 Juddmonte International (G1). Magical’s visit to Hong Kong gives her a similar opportunity to turn the tables, this time on Skalleti. In their prior meeting in the Oct. 17 Champion S. (G1) at Ascot, Skalleti held off the repeat-seeking Magical when they were second and third, respectively, to Addeybb.

A combination of slow pace on desperate ground worked against her in the Champion, and trainer Aidan O’Brien noted that the race shape didn’t suit her strengths in the Breeders’ Cup either.

“She just likes a high tempo really and that’s what catches her sometimes over a mile and a half – the tempo’s not strong, like the last time,” O’Brien told the Hong Kong Jockey Club from his Irish base. “The time before that it was a mile and a quarter, but it was the same thing, slow tempo early. She likes to be at a high tempo to be seen at her best.”

With Hong Kong’s committed front runner Time Warp in the field, Magical figures to get a more suitable set-up, and she projects a ground-saving trip from post 1. But as jockey Ryan Moore commented, she has to dispatch some proper opponents.

“The reality is they probably have her to beat, but again you always respect the horses that are in there,” Moore said.

“There’s three smart Japanese horses in there that have all won Group 1s. And Furore is in good shape. It’s a small field but there’s not a bad one in there, I don’t think.”

If Magical prevails, her eighth Group 1 tally would be the highest in Ballydoyle history, surpassing such past O’Brien champions as Rock of Gibraltar, Yeats, Highland Reel, and Minding.

Skalleti, officially the joint highest-rated Cup runner along with Magical at 121, has to give the mare four pounds – and prove that he can upend her in better conditions than the Ascot bog.

“On Sunday he needs to show he is up to that same level in very different circumstances, around two turns and on good ground and against opposition which is very used to such a set-up,” trainer Jerome Reynier observed. “We beat Magical last time but this might be more to her taste and we are here to see what we can do.”

Skalleti earlier claimed another high-profile victim in Sottsass, edging the future Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner in the Aug. 15 Prix Gontaut-Biron (G3). Although he capitalized on a weight advantage in heavy going that day, Skalleti isn’t just a mudlark, and his 12-for-16 career record reflects a serious performer.

“He is quite exceptional,” Reynier added, “and it is rare to have a horse that can win a Premio Roma (G2) and two Prix Dollars (G2) on heavy ground going right-handed, who can also win on the all-weather at left-handed Marseille-Vivaux and a Prix Quincey (G3) up a straight 1600 meters at Deauville on good ground. He adapts to anything.

“I am quite confident and he’s a horse that never disappoints.”

French ace Pierre-Charles Boudot retains the mount on Skalleti, who has drawn in the middle of the field in post 4.

Win Bright (right) keeps his head in front of Magic Wand in the Hong Kong Cup (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

The connections of Win Bright are sounding a confident tone despite the fact he hasn’t won since last year’s Hong Kong Cup, where he overturned another Ballydoyle distaffer in Magic Wand.

To be fair, Win Bright is much better here than he is in Japan, having won the 2019 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) at this track and trip (in a course-record 1:58.81) before turning the double in December. And he has raced only twice in the interim. Seventh in the Mar. 1 Nakayama Kinen (G2) that was designed as his prep for Dubai, he made a wasted trip to Meydan for the World Cup card that was called off by the pandemic. Win Bright wasn’t seen again until the Nov. 1 Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) and wound up 10th behind two-time champ Almond Eye.

Yet that was reminiscent of how Win Bright tuned up for the 2019 Hong Kong Cup, and trainer Yoshihiro Hatakeyama is seeing a substantial move forward from that tightener.

“The horse is doing quite well, much like last year,” Hatakeyama said. “He wasn’t quite at his best leading up to the Tenno Sho Autumn, even more so this year with so much time between races.

“Then again, just like last year, he came out of the Tenno Sho Autumn in fantastic condition, so we are pleased that we have the opportunity to race again in Hong Kong despite the pandemic.

“He is a completely different horse from where he was a month ago. He is in a similar place physically now as he was last year – we will try our best and hope to make his last run a winning one.”

If Win Bright can bow out on top, he would emulate California Memory (2011-12) as the only two-time Cup winner. Regular rider Masami Matsuoka maintains his partnership with Win Bright, even though he’ll have to serve a two-week quarantine when back in Japan.

On the other hand, Sunday’s renewal is arguably deeper, and unlike last year, Win Bright has to cope with fellow Japanese contenders – Danon Premium, the champion 2-year-old colt of 2017, and high-class mare Normcore, both sporting nearer form to Almond Eye.

Danon Premium, coming off a fourth in the Tenno Sho Autumn, also has collateral form with Skalleti and Magical. In his only previous international venture, he was a valiant third to Addeybb in the Apr. 11 Queen Elizabeth over heavy going at Randwick. Conditions did him no favors, so Danon Premium’s effort can be upgraded. Note that he picks up William Buick.

Normcore, a closing fourth in last year’s Hong Kong Mile (G1), makes an intriguing change of HKIR target. The winner of the 2019 Victoria Mile (G1) in record time, and third to Almond Eye in her May 17 title defense, Normcore had success going longer earlier in her career. She regained the winning thread when stretching back out to about 1 1/4 miles in the Aug. 23 Sapporo Kinen (G2) versus males. Normcore can be forgiven her latest flop at Kyoto, where her tactical switch-up to set the pace backfired. With Christophe Soumillon benched by COVID protocols, top Hong Kong rider Zac Purton lands the assignment.

Furore and Exultant
Furore beats Horse of the Year Exultant in the Jockey Club Cup (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Top local hope Furore was fourth to Win Bright a year ago, but the New Zealand-bred enters in better form. The hero of the course-and-distance Hong Kong Derby as well as the Hong Kong Classic Mile in 2019, he wasn’t progressing as hoped until his transfer to Tony Cruz this spring. Furore began to turn the page when runner-up to Hong Kong Horse of the Year Exultant in the Apr. 26 QEII Cup, and he’s reached top form in the new season. Twice toppling Exultant in November lead-ups, including a cozy win in the Nov. 22 Jockey Club Cup (G2), Furore has credentials along with Joao Moreira.

Stablemate Time Warp, who wired the 2017 Hong Kong Cup, can spring the occasional coup. But the British import isn’t quite the same force of old, and it would be a shock for him to recapture the glory against this field. Fellow Hong Konger Dances with Dragon has a more plausible chance of picking up a check, as a Group 1 winner in his native New Zealand who’s finished strongly behind Furore in his prep runs.

Quotations collected from Hong Kong Jockey Club notes by David Morgan, Leo Schlink, Scott Burton, and Kate Hunter