April 27 (UPI) -- Southern Legend edged Beauty Generation in a dramatic finish, Exultant ground out a victory and Mr Stunning stunned the Hong Kong faithful on Champions Day on Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse.
Champions Day was the highlight of a pandemic-shortened horse racing weekend, although Oaklawn Park and Gulfstream Park did their part to keep things going.
And, speaking of Oaklawn Park, officials at the Arkansas track announced Sunday that next weekend's Arkansas Derby will be split into two divisions. Churchill Downs officials agreed that each division will award Kentucky Derby points on the 100-40-20-10 scale, meaning at least two horses -- and likely four -- will be "in" for the Run for the Roses, now planned for Sept. 5.
Elsewhere around the world, France Galop put forward a tentative summer schedule that eliminates several traditional stakes, but saves the main Classics. Ireland and England continue to seek ways forward with the same goals in mind.
But the action was in Hong Kong, and that's where we turn first.
Three Grade I races graced the Sha Tin turf Sunday, and the lack of fans in the stands and foreign raiders in the fields did nothing to lessen the drama.
Southern Legend beat Beauty Generation by a head bob in the FWD Champions Mile after a dramatic stretch duel, potentially costing Beauty Generation at chance at a third straight Horse of the Year title in what might or might not have been his swan song.
At the top of the stretch, it looked for all the world that Beauty Generation had regained his mojo as he surged to the lead and headed for the finish. But rider Vincent Ho was in hot pursuit, came to challenge with 200 meters to run and just did get the victory by the narrowest of noses.
Waikuku, who had finished in front of Beauty Generation four times this season, was third. The Champions Mile, after starting at a leisurely stroll, quickened as the furlongs went by and Southern Legend, who entered in this race in lieu of a swing at his third straight Kranji Mile in Singapore next month, finished in a good time of 1:33.13.
"The boss [trainer Caspar Fownes] had prepared him for Singapore, so I always felt he'd pick up really well," Ho said. "Last run, he ran really well, so I thought I could get close to Beauty Generation.
Fownes said there's no thought of retiring the 7-year-old Not A Single Doubt gelding. "I haven't told him he's turning 8 in August yet, so we'll keep that a bit of a secret," he said with a wink.
Beauty Generation's trainer, John Moore, whose Hong Kong career hits a mandatory stop at age 70 after this season, plans to resume training in in Australia and said he'd be happy to have his 7-year-old star along if the owners, the Kwok family, agree.
"I'd like to take him back for a mile race in Australia and then have him stay there at the Living Legends Farm," Moore said of the Road to Rock gelding. "That's what I'd like to do, but what the Kwok family wants to do is what counts. I don't know whether they'll keep racing him or retire him."
In the FWD QE II Cup, Exultant may have benefited most from the absence of foreign competition as he didn't need his best form to produce a workmanlike win against local rivals.
Jockey Zac Purton put the 6-year-old Teofilo gelding into the race midway down the backstretch as stablemate Time Warp was out and winging on the lead. In their last race, Exultant gave Time Warp too much rope and Purton was determined not to repeat that mistake.
The tactic worked as Time Warp began to fade midway down the stretch, leaving Exultant on the lead. Though he was laboring, Exultant had enough to win by 3/4 length over Furore, winner of the 2019 BMW Hong Kong Derby. Time Warp faded to finish fifth.
The win made Purton the only rider ever to score in all of Hong Kong's Grade 1 events, but he said it was no sure thing.
"My fella, at the 300-meter mark, was just starting to struggle a little bit," Purton said. "Down to the 200, I knew there was a horse coming and I could sense my bloke was at his bottom. He didn't have anything else, so I was certainly worried. But my guy, he just kept galloping along and did enough."
Trainer Tony Cruz saddled both Exultant and Furore and said both will go on to the final Group 1 event of the Hong Kong season, the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup at 2,400 meters May 24.
Exultant could have a good case for Horse of the Year with a win in the Champions & Chater Cup. Or the door could be open to BMW Hong Kong Derby winner Golden Sixty.
The Chairman's Sprint Prize produced the day's biggest upset as Mr Stunning got through a hole between rivals at mid-stretch and won by 3/4 length over fellow long shot Big Time Baby. Thanks Forever was third as the favorites, Aethero and Hot King Prawn didn't perform.
Hot King Prawn ran well enough, finishing fourth in a tightly bunched race to the wire. But Furore, after leading through much of the 1,200 meters, stopped badly and was eased home. He later was found to have bled.
Mr Stunning, a 7-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding, was scratched from last season's Chairman's Sprint Prize with a hairline fracture of his hip, and trainer Frankie Lor has been babying him ever since.
"Because of the hairline fracture he had, I can't push him too hard, especially as he is an older horse," Lor said. "That's why this time I didn't trial him before this race. We just freshened him up.
"We planned this to be his last run but let me talk to the owner and we will decide and see what he thinks about the horse. I'm very happy for him."
The Run for the Roses
A two-division running of the Arkansas Derby next Saturday is good news not just for racing fans but also for owners and trainers who have few options to keep their contenders running -- or to earn Derby points -- amid the coronavirus shutdown of most American tracks.
Unless California officials allow Santa Anita to reopen and salvage the Santa Anita Derby, Saturday's race will be the last of the original "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series compiled by Churchill Downs that is supposed to set the 20-horse field for its premier race.
This time around, however, Louisville is promising to add more races and more points, although with the season in turmoil, it's hard to pinpoint where those might come.
Thus, the importance of getting as many 3-year-olds into the Oaklawn starting gate Saturday. In announcing the split, the track said it expects as many as 22 horses to compete in the two divisions.
"We're trying to make the best of a very, very difficult situation," Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. "On the one hand, it is the worst of times to be racing without fans in our grandstand. On the other, we have a large number of exceptional 3-year-olds wanting to run in our Arkansas Derby. We simply did not want to see anyone lose that opportunity."
Churchill Downs President Kevin Flannery added, "We recognize that there are numerous 3-year-olds currently in training with limited racing opportunities, and our prominent partner Oaklawn Park is in a unique and important position to immediately fill a void for horsemen. An extension of the Road to the Kentucky Derby will continue to evolve in the weeks ahead."
Among those set to compete Saturday the winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the Rebel Stakes and the Louisiana Derby. Trainer Bob Baffert earlier indicated a split of the race would give him the opportunity to run more than one of his many Derby contenders while minimizing chances they might beat each other and lose points.
When entries were taken Sunday, Baffert had two. Charlatan, who drew gate No. 1 for the first division, would not have made it into the field had the race not been split as he did not have enough earnings. Baffert has Nadal in the second division.
We'll have much more on these heats in Thursday's weekend preview.
Long Weekend broke on top in Saturday's $100,000 Bachelor Stakes for 3-year-olds, dropped in from his outside gate to take the lead along the rail and held on to win by a head over Echo Town, who dogged him most of the 6 furlongs.
Lykan was third, 5 lengths farther back, and the odds-on favorite, California invader Eight Rings, faded badly through the lane to get home fifth. The race went in 1:09.63 over a fast track.
Long Weekend, a Majesticperfection colt trained by Tom Amoss, made it three straight wins and four from five starts. His only loss came in the Grade II Saratoga Special, where he was a well-beaten sixth.
Eight Rings, an Empire Maker colt trained by Bob Baffert, won the Grade I American Pharoah at Santa Anita last September, but now has posted two straight disappointing fade jobs.
"He showed a lot of determination, which is the sign of a good horse," Amoss said. "I thought Joe not only rode a smart race from the break, but was a very strong finisher on my horse and kept him going nicely.
"Any time you have a speed horse that hasn't been challenged down the lane in his wins, and Long Weekend has not, you have to wonder what's going to happen when that challenge comes that last portion of the race. I was really proud of him today," Amoss added.
In the companion $125,000 Carousel for fillies and mares, Mia Mischief dueled into the stretch with Amy's Challenge, quickly put that one away and ran on to win her third straight race, scoring by 4 1/2 lengths.
Amy's Challenge was a clear second, 3 1/4 lengths in front of Lady Suebee. The favorite, Bellafina, was off a step behind the others, checked off heels early and tired after chasing the top two, finishing fourth. Mia Mischief got 6 furlongs in 1:09.57 under Ricardo Santana Jr.
Mia Mischief, a 5-year-old Into Mischief mare trained by Steve Asmussen, won the Grade I Humana Distaff last spring at Churchill Downs and finished up a successful year with a win in the Dream Supreme over the same course Nov. 1.
She returned March 20 at Oaklawn, winning a warmup by 2 1/4 lengths. Bellafina, winner of last year's Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, had not run since finishing second in both the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and the Grade I La Brea.
"Obviously, she's a very talented mare," Asmussen said of Mia Mischief. "She's a Grade 1 winner. I think she's better now than she's ever been. ... Hopefully, we can see her in the Breeders' Cup this fall. With her ability, that's the path she should be on."
Bellafina's rider, Joe Talamo, said his worst fears were realized at the start.
"That's kind of what we were all worried about, the 1 hole," Talamo said. "She always breaks a step slow, and that definitely cost us today, especially drawing the 1 hole. If she would have drawn outside, it would have been a whole different scenario."
Another 3-year-old who might benefit from the delayed Kentucky Derby schedule is Dr. Post. The Quality Road colt overcame a lack of experience, his first time around two turns and a very challenging trip to win Saturday's $75,000 Unbridled Stakes convincingly, by 1 1/2 lengths over Attachment Rate.
Dr. Post, with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, was sandwiched tightly between horses from late in the run up the backstretch, around the far turn and into the stretch. He was bumped soundly while straightening for home and still managed to outfinish Attachment Rate with some authority.
The early leader, Americanus, finished third as Dr. Post got the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.07.
Dr. Post was making just his third start. He finished seventh in his debut at Belmont Park last summer, then was put away until March 29, when he won a maiden special weight race by 1 1/4 lengths. The word was out on the Todd Pletcher trainee that day as he went off the even-money favorite.
"Like everyone else, we'll wait and see what options we have," Pletcher said after Saturday's race. "Hopefully, we'll find out some news from New York when they're thinking about reopening, hopefully this week.
"By the time he's ready to run, we'll have a better idea what our options are. But I was very, very encouraged by this."