April 24 (UPI) -- With much of the world's horse racing still out of action because of the coronavirus, Hong Kong steps up this weekend with a trio of Group 1 races with Horse of the Year honors on the line.
Oaklawn Park continues its stakes schedule with a pair of sprints that drew Grade I-level competitors. And Gulfstream Park adds a stakes event.
Events are so thin in the United States that one of next week's top races is Thursday's $75,000 Bosselman Pump and Pantry/Gus Fonner Stakes at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb. And it promises to be a good race.
When will things get better? Well, Churchill Downs again has pushed back opening its backstretch and training facility. Santa Anita awaits word on its plea to reopen. There's still no word on rescheduling the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
We remain hopeful. But, for now, it's:
Sunday's FWD Champions Day program is one of Hong Kong's two big days of international racing, book-ending the Longines Hong Kong International Races in December. The HKIR races were run before a severely limited crowd because of the street demonstrations.
Champions Day will be conducted with no fans in the stands because of coronavirus prevention measures. Full marks to the Hong Kong Jockey Club for its extreme and extremely effective efforts to keep things going safely.
There are three Group 1 races on the card -- the FWD QE II Cup at 2,000 meters, the FWD Champions Mile and the Chairman's Sprint Prize at 1,200 meters.
Champions Day was to have been a showdown of sorts between the reigning and two-time Horse of the Year Beauty Generation and the "young" upstart winner of this year's Hong Kong Derby, Golden Sixty, with the former going in the Mile and Golden Sixty in the QE II Cup.
A win by Golden Sixty likely would have sewn up champions' honors. But he is staying in the barn, with trainer Francis Lui saying this week, simply, "He won't run. He's achieved a lot this season and we feel he needs a rest now to refresh his mind and let him develop. He'll have a summer break and then we'll prepare him for next season."
For Beauty Generation, with the "next season" a question mark, it's all about now.
After winning all eight of his races in the 2018-19 season to earn his second straight Horse of the Year honor, the 7-year-old endured four straight losses this season before reclaiming his mojo.
He now comes off victory in the Group 2 Chairman's Trophy and a win Sunday would make him at least a sentimental choice for an unprecedented third straight top honor.
Two others running Sunday could be Horse of the Year candidates with good showings. Exultant has emerged over the past two seasons as Hong Kong's premier distance runner and Waikuku finished in front of Beauty Generation in all four of that one's defeats -- but flopped last time out.
Still, trainer John Moore says his old boy should get points for his status and popularity.
"If we can win the Champions Mile on Sunday, he'd have to be a serious chance of being Horse of the Year again," Moore said of Beauty Generation.
The veteran already has 18 wins in Hong Kong, one more than the legendary Silent Witness. He is the track record holder at a mile and, with more than HK$100 million in earnings, also tops that list.
All three races will be fought out entirely by locals. In a "normal" year, there would be significant international competition and, in fact, a stellar list of overseas raiders was entered this year. Travel and health restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that but the Hong Kong-based runners are plenty good to make the event world-class.
The FWD Champions Mile
Beauty Generation trailed Waikuku in all four of his defeats this season -- albeit only by relatively narrow margins. He did not face that rival in his rebound victory.
But last time out, the two squared off in the Chairman's Trophy at 1 mile with Beauty Generation looking like his old self in triumph and Waikuku tossing in a clunker, defeating only Fat Turtle while reporting 4 3/4 lengths behind Beauty Generation.
The question is: Which of those two can reproduce his best form in the Champions Mile? Or, alternatively, if they both show up big, can the 7-year-old have enough left to win again or will the torch pass to the 5-year-old rival?
The field also includes Ka Ying Star, who led all but the final jumps in the Chairman's Trophy, Singapore specialist Southern Legend, who was third in that race, and the aforementioned Fat Turtle.
A side issue in this race, and in the other two for that matter, is the hot rivalry for the jockey premiership between Joao Moreira and Zac Purton. Moreira rides Waikuku and Beauty Generation is Purton's "horse of a career," which is saying something given his status.
The QE II Cup
Seven are set for the 2,000-meters feature with Exultant and Time Warp topping the list. Exultant, a 6-year-old Teofilo gelding, is the highest-rated of three entered by trainer Tony Cruz, but like Beauty Generation, has been unable to repeat last season's glory, which included victories in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup and the Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup.
He was third in this season's Hong Kong Cup, behind two Japanese invaders, and exits a fast-closing second behind front-running stablemate Time Warp in the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup, also at 2,000 meters.
Furore enters winless in eight starts since landing last season's BMW Hong Kong Derby but has perked up since transferring to Cruz's care in February.
The others in the Cup look overmatched. But, then, so did Playa del Puente, who went off at odds of 290-1 in the Hong Kong Derby and fell just a nose short of holding off Golden Sixty for the win. He makes his first start back from that effort.
Purton rides Exultant, starting from the No. 5 gate. Time Warp, with Moreira up, drew just to his inside. The race features a short run to the first turn. Time Warp, a confirmed front-runner, should have a clear sprint to the lead while Exultant should have no trouble securing a stalking spot although a tardy start in the Gold Cup likely cost him the win.
The Chairman's Sprint Prize
Hong Kong's speediest are in the 11-horse field with Aethero and Hot King Prawn heading the cast. Purton has the mount on Aethero while Moreira pilots Hot King Prawn.
Aethero, a 3-year-old sensation early in the season, opened eyes with a victory in the Group 2 Jockey Club Sprint in November, defeating runner-up Hot King Prawn by 2 lengths with Beat the Clock third.
Things got scrambled a month later in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint when Beat the Clock, Hot King Prawn and Aethero reported in that order, separated by inches.
Beat the Clock has called it a season while Hot King Prawn continued on to finish second to long shot Voyage Warrior in the Group 2 Sprint Cup -- a race in which Aethero finished last of eight, never in the mix. Aethero did come back to win a barrier trial April 17 with Hot King Prawn second.
With so much uncertainty, this race looks ripe for another surprise. The field also includes the likes of D B Pin, Full of Beauty and Mr Stunning -- all of whom ran well in the Sprint Cup -- not to mention the surprising Voyage Warrior.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Rescheduling the Kentucky Derby to September makes for a whole new dynamic. For a change, 3-year-olds have a chance to develop and show what they can do before being committed to running 1 1/4 miles. And so races like Saturday's $100,000 Bachelor, at 6 furlongs, take on added meaning.
See, for example, Eight Rings, an Empire Maker colt trained by Bob Baffert. He was inconsistent as could be as a 2-year-old, winning brilliantly at 5 1/2 furlongs in his first start, losing his rider in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, winning for fun in the Grade I American Pharoah at 1 1/16 miles and then fading badly to finish sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
One might think that, despite the pedigree (Empire Maker is a son of Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled), he might be a sprinter. Now, a good effort might be enough to get him back on the Derby track. Not, of course, that Baffert has any shortage of candidates as he seeks a record-tying sixth win in the Run for the Roses.
The main threat in the Bachelor would seem to be Long Weekend, a Majesticperfection colt trained by Tom Amoss who has won both his starts this year. The most recent effort was a 4 3/4-lengths romp in the local Gazebo Stakes, also at 6 furlongs. Ginobli was second, just 3/4 length back of Nadal, in the Grade II San Vicente on Feb. 9 but finished fifth as the odds-on favorite in his first start at Oaklawn. Echo Town won nicely in the slop in his last start and will have support.
And don't overlook Sir Rick, a Paynter colt who won the Mine That Bird Derby in New Mexico before a nasty, last-place outing in the slop in the Oaklawn Stakes on April 11.
The companion $125,000 Carousel for fillies and mares, also at 6 furlongs, brought Bellafina from California to face some talented local distaffers.
Bellafina, a 4-year-old Quality Road filly, is a multiple Grade I winner. She just missed in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in November, coming up 3/4 length short of Covfefe, then finished second in the Grade I La Brea before entering hibernation. The main concern is the layoff.
Well, another concern is the competition. Mia Mischief, drawn outside in a field of eight, also is a Grade I winner, having taken the Humana Distaff a year ago at Churchill Downs. The 5-year-old Into Mischief mare is a consistent money-earner, hitting the board in 16 of her 20 career starts. She has three wins and two seconds from five Oaklawn Park starts, too.
The Carousel field also includes the first three finishers from the local Spring Fever Stakes -- Midnight Fantasy, Amy's Challenge and What a Fox.
The South Florida track also offers a 3-year-old feature Saturday, the $75,000 Unbridled Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. Look for Dr Post, a Quality Road colt who exits an impressive maiden win over the course. With Todd Pletcher training, Dr Post could jump into the Derby picture with another step forward.
Also on the radar screen here is Attachment Rate. After Dennis' Moment fell out of the Derby picture, this Hard Spun colt emerged as trainer Dale Romans' top hope for the Run for the Roses. But he will have to improve on a third-place finish in the Grade III Gotham to keep moving forward.
South Bend has been knocking on the door, but has to walk through at some point. The Unbridled could be that spot for the Algorithms colt, trained by Stanley Hough.