The four Longines International Races over the Sha Tin turf in Hong Kong feature some of the world's blue bloods, including a pair from the United States. The Claiming Crown is for the blue collar horses -- steeds that have started for a claiming tag within the past year.
Adding to the mix are graded stakes at Calder Race Course, just down the street from Gulfstream, and at soon-to-be bulldozed Hollywood Park in California. Tampa Bay Downs in Florida and Turfway Park in Kentucky are back up and running for the long winter season.
It's an odd mix, to be sure, but one promising excitement and some excellent wagering opportunities. Here's a closer look.
Four Group 1 races, worth more than US$9 million, make up Sunday's Longines International Races, billed as the "Greatest Show on Turf." Ten of the world's 50 highest-rated horses are entered at distances from 1,200 meters or about 6 furlongs to 2,400 meters, or about 1 1/2 miles. In addition to the U.S. duo and the usual strong home team, the races include runners from Japan, Australia, England, Ireland, France and Germany.
The Longines Hong Kong Cup, at 2,000 meters, features Hong Kong's reigning Horse of the Year, Military Attack; France's Cirrus Des Aigles, who was ranked No. 1 in the world at the start of 2013; and American hopeful Little Mike, winner of the 2012 Grade I Arlington Million and Breeders' Cup Turf. Two others in the 12-horse field, England's Side Glance and Germany's Neatico, also boast Group 1 wins. Little Mike drew gate No. 6 in Thursday's ceremony and trainer Dale Romans called that "absolutely perfect. Couldn't be better." He noted the expected speed in the race, Japan's Tokei Halo was drawn "immediately inside us to cart us forward. Very happy." Mike Smith will ride the 6-year-old Spanish Steps gelding. Still, after an fruitless trip to Dubai earlier this year and a seventh-place showing in this year's Breeders' Cup, Little Mike is an outside chance against the likes of Military Attack and Cirrus Des Aigles, who were drawn in gates 9 and 10, respectively. Another to be feared is Hong Kong-based Endowing, a rapidly improving 4-year-old under the care of leading local trainer John Size.
The Longines Hong Kong Sprint is a fascinating rematch between Japan's world-class sprint champion, Lord Kanaloa, and local star Lucky Nine -- with, of course, a large cast of would-be spoilers. Lord Kanaloa is making his last start after a dominating career that includes two straight wins in the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes in his homeland and a victory in this race last year -- over Lucky Nine. The latter, winner of this race in 2011, has struggled a bit since winning the Group 1 KrisFlyer Sprint in Singapore. In his recent foray to Australia, he lost twice, finishing behind promising Australian runner Buffering, who may be headed to Royal Ascot in the spring but is skipping Hong Kong's battles. Lucky Nine had a lucky draw this year, relative to his Japanese rival. Starting from gate No. 5, jockey Brett Prebble will have first choice of position over Lord Kanaloa, who was parked out in the No. 12 spot in a field of 14. Local horses have won nine of the last 11 runnings of this race and the SAR has plenty more firepower backing up Lucky Nine's bid this year.
The second American runner and two accomplished European distaffers, 3-year-old Sky Lantern and 5-year-old Moonlight Cloud, are among the invaders challenging a stout local contingent in the Longines Hong Kong Mile. Moonlight Cloud, a consistent winner at the top level, is best remembered for a second-place finish -- her narrow loss to Black Caviar in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee at Ascot in 2012. Sky Lantern, a light gray filly, has three Group 1 wins on her 2013 record. King Kreesa comes from New York under the tutelage of trainer Jeremiah Englehart and is seeking his first win at the highest level. He finished second to reigning U.S. Horse of the Year Wise Dan this summer at Saratoga in the Grade II Fourstardave Handicap. Australia, France and Ireland also have hopes in this race. Local trainers saddle the dangerous Gold-Fun, Dan Excel, Glorious Days -- all proven against top-level competition locally.
The Longines Hong Kong Vase is a wide-open, 1 1/2-miles affair that features some of the world's most traveled stayers. Red Cadeaux, now 7 years old, won this last year and has run second in this year's Dubai World Cup and Melbourne Cup. Dunaden, also 7, has two Group 1 seconds this year, to Novellist and St Nicholas Abbey and finished a good fifth in the Japan Cup two weeks ago. Simenon, a 6-year-old, comes to Hong Kong after also-ran efforts in both the Melbourne Cup and the Japan Cup. Dandino, also 6, finished second in last year's Group 1 Canadian International at Woodbine and won this summer's American St. Leger at Arlington Park. Among the relative youngsters is the England-based 4-year-old filly The Fugue. Owned by Sir Andrew Lloyd-Webber, she has two Group 1 wins this year along with a narrow second to Novellist in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita last month. German trainers will saddle three in this event, headed by Feuerblitz, who won the Group 1 Premio Roma in Italy in his last start.
Back in North America
Rosalind, a close third in last month's Breeders' Cup, is a logical pick among eight entered in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Hollywood Starlet for 2-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles. Rosalind, a Broken Vow filly, got a terrible start in the Breeders' Cup, fell far back and then rallied to miss the embattled leaders by just over 1/2 length. Before that, she was second in the Grade II Darley Alcibiades over the Keeneland all-weather course so the Hollywood surface should be no problem. Concave has shown promise in graded stakes company. Bajan boasts two straight wins. Untapable won the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs, in which Rosalind finished third. A couple others are recent maiden winners.
Fiftyshadesofhay is the 118-pound highweight for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course. The Bob Baffert trainee has finished in the money in seven straight races, all graded stakes, with wins in three of those. Charm the Maker, Spellbound, Customer Base and Charlie Em all have run credibly in graded stakes. Others have shown promise, too.
Eight races comprise this year's Claiming Crown, including the $200,000 Jewel at 9 furlongs and $125,000 events on the grass for both fillies and mares and all comers. The names mostly are unfamiliar -- although the morning-line favorite for the Jewel, Bernie the Maestro, has run in some good ones -- but there are full or near-full fields and some challenging handicapping chances.
Calder Race Course
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap attracted 11, with a pair of "main track only" also-eligibles. There's not a lot to separate the top half dozen or so unless the race does come off the turf, in which case Csaba would be a good one to have. On the lawn, Tetradrachm, Bad Debt, Paris Vegas, Refleting and Heiko all are at single-digit odds on the morning line. The race is at 9 furlongs.
The $100,000, Grade III My Charmer Handicap is for fillies and mares at the same distance as the Tropical Turf. A dozen plus four also-eligibles are entered and the lukewarm favorite is Naples Bay, who drew the No. 12 gate. She hasn't won for some 15 months but was second in this event last year.
If Csaba doesn't go in the Tropical Turf, look for him as favorite in the $100,000, Grade III Fred W. Hooper at 9 furlongs on the main track. Others to watch in this 10-horse field are this spring's Calder Derby winner, Sr. Quisqueyano, and Valid, who comes off a win in an optional claimer at Gulfstream Park.
In Japan, the marquee event of the weekend is the Group 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies at 1,600 meters. Eighteen young ladies are entered for the turf sprint.
Aqueduct on Saturday has the $100,000 Garland of Roses Handicap for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs on the dirt.
Laurel Park's Saturday card features three $100,000 stakes races including 7-furlong events for 2-year-olds and 2-year-old fillies.
Tampa Bay makes it three Florida tracks running at the same time with Saturday's program featuring a pair of $100,000 races for the juvenile set.
Turfway Park takes over winter racing in Kentucky with Saturday's $50,000 Holiday Inaugural Stakes for fillies and mares going 6 furlongs.
Woodbine has 2-year-old events on both Saturday and Sunday with Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Display Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course open to all.