June 13, 2024

Maurice, A Shin Hikari cross swords in Hong Kong Cup

Maurice (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Japan’s two Hong Kong International Race winners from 2015, Maurice (Jpn) and A Shin Hikari (Jpn), are set for an epic clash in Sunday’s Hong Kong Cup (G1). The dynamic duo may cap a banner day for their homeland, which also fields logical contenders in the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) and Hong Kong Mile (G1), and takes on Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase (G1).

Last December, Maurice wrapped up Japanese Horse of the Year honors by cruising in the Mile on HKIR day. Instead of a title defense, the well-named son of Screen Hero is seeking new worlds to conquer in the about 1 1/4-mile Cup. That puts him on a collision course with defending Cup champion A Shin Hikari, the front runner extraordinaire who led home a one-two for Japan here last year.

Maurice is a much more reliable individual than the idiosyncratic A Shin Hikari. After switching to trainer Noriyuki Hori for 2015, Maurice compiled a perfect six-race campaign. The handsome bay swept both of Japan’s elite races in the mile division, the Yasuda Kinen (G1) in early summer and the Mile Championship (G1) during the Autumn International, and he stamped his class internationally when dethroning Able Friend at Sha Tin.

Maurice makes it six straight in Hong Kong Mile

This season hasn’t been as straightforward, but that was no fault of Maurice’s. Forced to skip his anticipated Dubai venture when not physically right, he wasn’t seen again until the May 1 Champions Mile (G1) back at Sha Tin. Maurice won well despite the 4 1/2-month layoff. But he wasn’t at his best going into his Yasuda Kinen title defense, and had to settle for second to pacesetting longshot Logotype (Jpn). Stepping up to try about 10 furlongs for the first time in the August 21 Sapporo Kinen (G2), Maurice was patiently handled, and allowed front-running Neorealism (Jpn) too much rope on the rain-affected track. He was along for a belated second without threatening the upwardly mobile winner. (Both Logotype and Neorealism run earlier in Sunday’s Hong Kong Mile.)

Reunited with Ryan Moore for the first time since last HKIR, Maurice rebounded in his next attempt at this distance in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). That also involved A Shin Hikari, who tried to pull a wire job only to come undone in the stretch. Maurice, who’d always been kept in striking range, swept to a convincing score and proved more than a miler.

Ryan Moore’s verdict should send chills up the spine of his adversaries: “Today I thought 2,000 meters was probably his best performance.”

If Maurice is actually better at this trip than he is over a mile, the Cup is his for the taking.

A Shin Hikari (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
A Shin Hikari (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

A Shin Hikari will put that hypothesis to the test, and if he’s going to beat Maurice anywhere, it’s around this flat circuit that suits him so well. The embodiment of a feast-or-famine type, the excitable gray has won 10 of 14 lifetime, while flaming out in the other four. Thus A Shin Hikari is no stranger to picking himself up after a poor effort, dusting himself off, and looking brilliant the next time as if nothing ever happened. Case in point: he’d faded to ninth in the 2015 Tenno Sho Autumn prior to dazzling in the Hong Kong Cup.

A Shin Hikari turns in front-running tour de force in Hong Kong Cup

Taking his show on the road to France for the May 24 Prix d’Ispahan (G1), A Shin Hikari duplicated his Sha Tin heroics to floor an accomplished cast including Dariyan (Fr), Silverwave (Fr), New Bay (GB), Mondialiste (Ire), and Erupt (Ire). His official margin of 10 lengths, on Chantilly’s heavy going, helped to inflate his international rating more than warranted.

Hence A Shin Hikari is ranked some way higher than Maurice (129-124), but the son of Deep Impact hasn’t backed that figure up in two ensuing starts. He was bet down to odds-on favoritism in the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, but floundered down the lane and compounded to last of six. Freshened for the fall, he resurfaced in the Tenno Sho Autumn and retreated to 12th.

While it’s possible that his European junket caught up with him, and he’s not the force of old, you’d never think so from his spirited training since the Tenno Sho. A Shin Hikari is giving every indication, both at home and this week at Sha Tin, that he’s going to run lights-out. He’s received the best draw for his running style – the rail – and he’ll waste no time from there with Yutaka Take in the irons.

But only one horse has won the Cup twice, local star California Memory (2011-12), and the ominous shadow of Maurice falls across A Shin Hikari’s hopes of emulating him.

As if A Shin Hikari’s title defense against Maurice weren’t compelling enough, the stakes are even higher because there won’t be a rematch. Both are to retire to stud in 2017.

A Japanese trifecta?

Japan has a realistic chance of sweeping all of the placings, with an additional trio of performers who shouldn’t be dismissed as a supporting cast.

Lovely Day (Jpn) was in career form in 2015, capturing the Takarazuka Kinen (G1) and Tenno Sho Autumn, and finishing a close third as the favorite in the Japan Cup (G1). Although not enjoying any success this term, the 10-furlong specialist is eligible to do better than his distant fourth as the favorite in the April 24 QE II Cup (G1) at this track and trip. The yielding ground was all against him that day. The son of King Kamehameha will get his preferred quick surface on Sunday – and maybe new rider Hugh Bowman, hero of Wednesday night’s International Jockey Challenge, will ignite a fire in him.

Staphanos (Jpn), runner-up to Lovely Day in last year’s Tenno Sho Autumn and a furiously closing third to Maurice in the newest edition, has an arguably better chance of moving up with a jockey switch to Christophe Soumillon. His two prior visits here have yielded mixed results – a second to Blazing Speed (Ire) in the 2015 QE II Cup and a disappointing 10th behind A Shin Hikari in this race – but he’s coming up to this third Sha Tin excursion in great heart. Staphanos touted himself with a superb work Thursday over the turf course, clocking his penultimate 200 meters in :10.

Queens Ring (Copyright Japan Racing Association)
Queens Ring (Copyright Japan Racing Association)

Three females have won the Cup over the last dozen years, and Queens Ring (Jpn) bids to update that stat to four. A veteran of the 2015 Japanese fillies’ classics, Queens Ring delivered her best effort in the third jewel, the Shuka Sho (G1), over this distance. Surging late, she missed by a neck in a stakes-record time of 1:56.9. A troubled trip next time in Kyoto’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) prevented her from finishing any better than eighth.

Being a May 25 foal, and by Manhattan Café, Queens Ring was entitled to improve with maturity, and she’s really hit her stride by winning her past two. Significantly, she gained revenge in the November 13 renewal of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, flying her last 600 meters (about three furlongs) in a field-best :33.2 to get up on the line.

This represents her first major test versus males, and post 11 doesn’t help her chances with the short run to the first turn. Yet regular rider Mirco Demuro is crafty enough to work out a trip, likely anchoring her off A Shin Hikari’s gallop, and it shouldn’t compromise her too much.

Will the Hong Kong elite make their presence felt?

Designs on Rome (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Designs on Rome (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

The locals hit a purple patch when winning the Cup four straight years, beginning with the aforementioned California Memory and concluding with Designs on Rome (Ire) (2014). But thanks to an injury to the circuit’s current star in this division, Werther (NZ), the HKIR home team now is mostly composed of aging veterans who need to ramp it up to fend off the Japanese onslaught.

Designs on Rome remains Hong Kong’s best chance of averting a Japanese sweep in the Cup. The John Moore charge scored a treble of Sha Tin’s marquee races at this trip in 2014, landing the Hong Kong Derby prior to defeating international fields in the QE II Cup and Hong Kong Cup. And he’s since added the 2015-16 editions of the Hong Kong Gold Cup.

If Designs on Rome hadn’t had to undergo surgery on both front ankles in the spring of 2015, the former Horse of the Year would have been in better shape for last year’s Cup. As it was, he performed honorably to rally for fourth in only his second start back. The Holy Roman Emperor gelding is much stronger this preparation. Although throwing in a subpar effort last time, his bang-up win in his fall reappearance suggests he can still be a force.

Fellow Hong Kong champion Blazing Speed has tried the Cup for the past three years, his best result being a third to A Shin Hikari last December. While an admirable competitor here who’s won majors at a mile, this trip in the 2015 QE II Cup, and at about 12 furlongs in the Champions & Chater Cup (twice), this race just hasn’t panned out for the Tony Cruz veteran. It’s difficult to see him improving much on last year’s effort, now that he’s seven, and no horse older than six has won this HKIR event since its incarnation at this distance. Stablemate Helene Super Star (formerly known as Lines of Battle when winning the 2013 U.A.E. Derby [G2] for Aidan O’Brien) hasn’t hit the board since taking the 2015 Champions & Chater, and there’s little prospect of a turnaround here.

Remainder of the home team

A couple of locals, themselves no spring chickens, are entering off new career highs. Secret Weapon (GB) exceeded expectations by winning the November 20 Jockey Club Cup (G2) over course and distance, in which both Blazing Speed and Designs on Rome disappointed. In his only prior attempt at the trip, he was seventh behind Designs on Rome in the Gold Cup, and it’s questionable whether he can follow up on international day. The only other horses who doubled up in the trial and the Cup were Vengeance of Rain (2005) and California Memory (2012), and needless to say, Secret Weapon isn’t in their league. South African import Horse of Fortune (SAf) scored an opportunistic win in the about nine-furlong Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (G3). Considering all of his prior wins in Hong Kong came at Happy Valley, and he’s been unplaced in two attempts at this trip, he looks up against it.

Globetrotting dirtballer Gun Pit (Aus) has yet to build any serious credentials on turf, where his Sha Tin record is 14-0-1-1. The son of Dubawi missed out on his projected tilt at the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), reportedly due to visa problems, and connections are already looking ahead to the Dubai Carnival.

Andre Fabre sends the lone European

Elliptique (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Elliptique (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Europeans did exceptionally well in the Cup’s first decade as a Group 1 prize. It’s a measure of the changing landscape, and the rise of Japan and Hong Kong, that only a single European turned up this time. Andre Fabre has dispatched Elliptique (Ire), who doesn’t bring the same cache as past French Cup winners Jim and Tonic (1999), Pride (2006), and Vision d’Etat (2009).

On a strict reading of form, Elliptique has something to find on the principals. Yet it wouldn’t be a stunner if the Rothschild homebred has further progress in him. An underachiever for much of his career, Elliptique has cultivated the virtue of consistency this season as a five-year-old. The son of New Approach has also earned a Group 1 laurel, albeit in the July 31 Bayerisches-Zuchtrennen (G1) rather than a loftier target. Not disgraced when third to Vase contender Silverwave in the Prix Foy (G2) (with One Foot in Heaven an uncharacteristic fourth) two back, he probably did as well as he could last time, rallying from the back in the Capannelle bog, to take third in the Premio Roma (G1).

Elliptique has been training forwardly at Sha Tin, and a well-bred type in decent form, from a top yard, can’t be discounted.