Hong Kong's international races on Sunday proved again to be truly international. But Hong Kong itself wound up the biggest winner -- even after the home team's star was sidelined.
The four international Group 1 races, all sponsored by Cathay Pacific Airline, drew contenders from around the globe. Lord Derby's champion mare, Ouija Board, won the Hong Kong Vase. A Japanese runner, Hat Trick, captured the Hong Kong Mile.
But it was the local interests in the winner's circle after the Hong Kong Sprint with Natural Blitz, even though local superstar Silent Witness was forced from that race by a reversal of form.
And -- unthinkable just a few years ago -- locally owned and trained Vengeance of Rain survived a dramatic stretch duel to win the day's marquee event, the Hong Kong Cup and, with it, the World Racing Championship.
"This victory stamped Vengeance of Rain as a truly international champion," said HKJC handicapper Ciaran Kennelly. "It shows Hong Kong once again has informed that both the trainers and horses can take on the world and win."
Vengeance of Rain, a 5-year-old, New Zealand-bred son of Zabeel, got to the front at mid-stretch in the Cup and determinedly held on to beat the French filly Pride by a nose. Maraahel was third. The main threat to Vengeance of Rain, Alexander Goldrun, broke poorly and was unable to find running room, finishing eighth of 10.
"He's such a star, isn't he?" asked winning trainer David Ferraris. "I think there is still more improvement in him, too." But the improvement is unlikely to come in Dubai during next month's World Cup, Ferraris added.
"The owners have asked me not to race him in Dubai so we will target the Hong Kong Gold Cup, the Audemars Piguet QEII Cup and the Champions & Chater" at home, he said. However, owner Raymond Chow later said a mid-summer European campaign might not be out of the question for the champ.
The victory catapulted Vengeance of Rain past Azamour to win the World Racing Championship without ever leaving home. Victories in the series-opening Audemars Piguet QEII Cup and the Hong Kong Cup provided the needed 24 points. Azamour finished with 18, including a win in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, a fifth in the Irish Champion Stakes and a third in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Shirocco and Warrsan tied for third with 15 points each, Warrsan earning points in four races in four different countries.
The Hong Kong Vase was a tour de force for Ouija Board, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. The 4-year-old Cape Cross filly endured a tough campaign this year, including a second-place finish in the Filly & Mare Turf in October in New York and a fifth in the Japan Cup last month.
Sunday, jockey Kieren Fallon kept Ouija Board well back of the pace until the running started on the turn. When he asked her for her run, the bay filly responded dramatically, running off to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Japanese challenger Six Sense. Best Gift was third. Westerner was a disappointing fifth; Cherry Mix ninth in Godolphin Racing's only try on the day.
"Absolutely fantastic," said the usually unemotional Lord Derby. "She's now won on three continents. ... We'll see how she travels back to Europe before we discuss her future plans. It's sad that it's too late for her to be Horse of the Year."
The owner did say he was surprised by the running of the race. "Kieren discussed sitting sixth, not last," he said.
The Hong Kong Mile was a wide-open affair and Japan's champion miler Hat Trick stepped into the opening. Trailing most of the field under jockey Olivier Peslier, Hat Trick ran down the leaders in deep stretch, beating The Duke by 1 1/4 length. Dave's Best, the extreme longshot winner of the Mile Trial, proved that race was no fluke by finishing third in the main event with a late run from near the back.
Bullish Luck, second in last year's Hong Kong Cup, was fourth in this year's Mile. Rakti finished 11th.
"He's really good," Peslier said of Hat Trick, a 4-year-old son of Sunday Silence. "Today's race was quite similar to when he won the Mile Championship at Kyoto. I just wanted to take my time and produce him on the outside. I was always confident when he broke well."
If the crowd of nearly 50,000 was missing superstar Silent Witness -- absent since his victory in Japan's Sprinters Stakes in October -- the pain was eased when fellow Hong Kong runner Natural Blitz stepped up to win the Hong Kong Sprint. Local runners also finished second, third, fourth and fifth, leading local officials to speculate they might lengthen the race from 1,000 meters to 1,200 to give European runners more chance.
Natural Blitz, then representing Macau, finished third in the Sprint last year. This time, jockey Glyn Schofield coaxed the 5-year-old Australian-bred across the line 2 lengths ahead of Planet Ruler, with Able Prince third. Nicole's Dream, who had run impressively in the Chicago area this summer, led briefly under jockey E.T. Baird but then faded in the final few hundred meters and finished last of 12.
"I was surprised there was so little pressure in the race," said Schofield. "I guess a lot of the field thought they were going to get a trail off me because he hasn't been so strong in the final 200 meters before."
In weekend racing in the United States:
Trotamondo came from dead last in a field of 10 to win Saturday's $100,000 Native Diver Handicap by 1/2 length over Bully Hayes. Spellbinder was third. Trotamondo, a Chilean-bred 4-year-old, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.92 with Garret Gomez urging him on. The colt had been idle for nearly a year after winning the Chilean St. Leger in December 2004, then finished second -- behind Preachinathebar -- in his first U.S. start for trainer Laura De Seroux last month.
Calder Race Course
Christmas Stocking delivered an early present to her backers after Saturday's $100,000 Cherokee Frolic Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Rallying from mid-pack, the Maryland-bred daughter of Ops Smile came outside the leaders to win by 3/4 length. Sprightly was second and Warrior Girl third. Christmas Stocking ran 1 1/16 mile on "good" turf in 1:45.38 for jockey Rafael Bejarano.
Also Saturday, Up an Octave won a three-horse blanket finish in the $100,000 Kris S. Stakes for 2-year-olds, beating Yankee Master by a head with Mr. Silver third after leading most of the way. Up an Octave, a Kentucky-bred, ran the 1 1/16 mile on "good" going in 1:44.11.
Hawthorne Race Course
Rolling Sea, the longshot half of an uncoupled entry from the barn of Richard Hazelton, got the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Pat Whitworth Illinois Debutante Stakes for state-bred juvenile fillies and held on to win by a neck over Cause She's Crafty. Lampoon was third as the favorite. Rolling Sea, a daughter of Sefapiano, got the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:45.08 with Miguel Mena aboard.
Fair Grounds at Louisiana Downs
Badtotheboneandrew pulled off a mild upset in Saturday's $150,000 Louisiana Champions Day Classic -- the highlight of an all-state-bred, all-stakes program. The 3-year-old son of On The Sauce came from off the pace, got to the front at the top of the lane and held off favorite Nitro Chip to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Sanctuary's Omooni was third. The 9 furlongs took 1:53.69.
Philanthropist led most of the way to win Saturday's $100,000 Queens County Handicap. Out early, the Kris S. 4-year-old, surrendered the lead in the stretch but came again to win by a neck over West Virginia. We Can Seek was home third. Eibar Coa rode Philanthropist over 1 3/16 mile in 1:56.99 for trainer Shug McGaughey. The colt posted his third straight win.
Are You Serious rallied past Bishop Court Hill in the stretch run to win Saturday's $125,000 Kennedy Road Stakes. Then Bishop Hill Court and Gangster dead-heated for the place and show. Are You Serious, a 3-year-old gelding by You and I, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.55 under Corey Fraser.
Saturday's My Charmer Stakes for fillies and mares was split into two divisions. Eyes On Eddy rallied on the outside to win one division by 7 1/4 lengths over Malaysia. Tappin for Gold went inside to win the other by 2 3/4 lengths over Lenataresesa. Eyes On Edddy, a 3-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Touch Gold, got the 1 1/16 mile in 1:48.19. Tappin for Gold, a 3-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Pleasant Tap, was clocked in 1:48.82.
Tampa Bay Downs
R Loyal Man poured it on down the stretch to win Saturday's $60,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds by 8 1/2 lengths over Forestry Prince, with Neverbeendancin' third. The favorite, Liquoreux, was sixth. R Loyal Man is a Kentucky-bred son of More Than Ready. He ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.91 with Rajev Maragh up.
Promenade Girl, the even-money mutuel pick, came from well back to win Saturday's $75,000 Geisha Handicap for Maryland-bred fillies and mares by 2 3/4 lengths over Take a Check. Dance Fee was home third. Promenade Girl, a 3-year-old daughter of Carson City, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.49.