Dec. 14 (UPI) -- The Hong Kong Jockey Club overcame all the pandemic hurdles to stage a worthy renewal of its Longines International Races on Sunday, with winners coming from Ireland, Japan and the home team while a pure white filly remained undefeated in Japan with her first Grade 1 win.
In North America, Tax and Largent won big weekend stakes at Gulfstream Park, probably earning spots in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup and World Cup Turf next month at the same venue.
A couple of potential Triple Crown contenders kicked off their careers impressively in Florida and Maryland.
As the year draws ever closer to a merciful end, we begin with:
The Longines Hong Kong International Races have evolved, thanks to the dedication and commitment of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, into a year-end international turf showdown.
The fact that this year's four Group 1 races nobly carried on that tradition despite all the barriers and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is a credit to the HKJC and the owners and trainers who participated.
The rewards were well spread around Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse.
Golden Sixty lived up to his promise as Hong Kong's best horse by winning the Mile. And Japanese horses annexed the Sprint and the day's marquee event, the Cup.
"It is important to have these global events," said HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. "We are very proud that as a team, we pulled this off. There were some anxious moments and discussions about, 'How can we do this?' But, in the end, we focused on the result and the results speak for themselves."
The Vase was a straightforward tour de force for Mogul. The colt stamped his passport with a victory in the Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris in September, but then was victimized by pace in finishing fifth in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf on Nov. 7 at Keeneland.
On Sunday, Moore let Exultant take the lead. The reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year, winner of the 2018 Vase and third last year, carried the advantage well into the stretch.
Then, Moore produced Mogul outside the leaders, he quickly got by them and ran on to win by 3 lengths. Exultant held second with Columbus County third.
"He's put them away very nicely," Moore said of Mogul. "In reality, I was in front sooner than would have been ideal today but he took me there nicely. When he gets in front, he maybe lacks a bit of concentration still but he's a beautiful looking horse.
"He's got a fantastic mind and it doesn't stress him. He'll be a really nice 4-year-old."
Coolmore Ireland later confirmed the colt will race on at age 4.
The Sprint was up next, promising to be a wide-open affair, especially if classy Australian import Classique Legend failed to perform in his first Hong Kong start.
He did not perform, finishing 11th, and it was Japan's Danon Smash rallying through the lane to lead home an all-long shot finish. The first five to report went off at odds of 22-1, 83-1, 22-1, 45-1 and 143-1.
Danon Smash is a 5-year-old son of Lord Kanaloa, who landed the Sprint twice during his outstanding career. Sunday's win, with Moore aboard, was his first at the top level.
Moore said he "got lucky" in overcoming the No. 14 draw. "He stepped very well and we managed to slot into a lovely spot. I was always happy and when the pace steadied around the bend, I was able to just move out and keep moving forward and he got there in plenty of time."
The Mile marked the highly anticipated Group 1 debut of Golden Sixty. The 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding already was regarded as Hong Kong's best after 10 straight wins, including the BMW Hong Kong Derby.
But trainer Francis Lui admitted he was nervous as his charge prepared to take on the best of the locals and such top internationals as 2019 Hong Kong Mile winner Admire Mars from Japan and Ireland's Order of Australia, the recent upset winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile.
No worries. With Vincent Ho in the kip, Golden Sixty took station well off the pace, came running around the turn and dominated the final 200 meters, winning by a confident 2 lengths.
Southern Legend was along for second with Admire Mars third. Order of Australia regressed to finish sixth.
"I can have a good sleep tonight!" said winning trainer Francis Lui. "I'm very happy. At the moment, I don't know what to say. [My heart] is still pumping. As a jockey, as a trainer, as an owner, you're dreaming of this.
"I was worried about the horses from Japan and Ireland but now, after this race, he has shown me that he's a champion."
With the season only half over, Golden Sixty does look like a shoo-in for Horse of the Year honors.
Eight-year-old Beauty Generation, a two-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year, finished fifth in the Mile and his retirement was announced immediately after the race.
The Cup was the capper on the day and it was Normcore again getting the goods for Japan. Zac Purton, who inherited the ride when Christophe Soumillion ran afoul of COVID-19 quarantine requirements, kept the gray just off the pace set by last year's winner, Win Bright, another Japanese runner.
Normcore, a 6-year-old mare by Stay Gold, eased by Win Bright to win by 3/4 length. Magical, another of the Irish contingent from the Coolmore "lads," finished third. Normcore finished fourth in last year's Hong Kong Mile and had only one previous victory this year.
"She had to fight for it," Purton said of Normcore. "Win Bright gave a really sharp kick and his love for Sha Tin was starting to show through."
It was widely expected that Magical, with seven Group 1 wins to her credit, would be retired after the Cup but trainer Aidan O'Brien was quoted after the race as lobbying hard to keep the Galileo mare on the track for one more year. Coolmore did not comment immediately.
Sodashi is as pure white as the Lone Ranger's horse, Silver, and is proving herself as brave as the masked man himself.
The Kurofune filly was fractious at the starting gate before Sunday's Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, faced a traffic jam at the top of the stretch and then had to muster a final lunge to get home a nose in front of previously undefeated Satono Reinas.
Sodashi, already a firm fan favorite, became the first white horse to win a Japanese Grade 1 race and jockey Hayato Yoshida was quick to praise her determination.
"Going into the race as favorite was a bit of a load but I'm thrilled with the outcome," Yoshida said.
"She hated to even go near the gate but I'm relieved that all went well and that we were able to be positioned just as I hoped. The going affected her good turn of foot but she gave all she had."
He added: "There is room for improvement. I hope we can get her ready for next year's Classics."
Sodashi won at first asking in July at Hakodate Racecourse. Stepping immediately into graded stakes, she went on to sweep the Grade 3 Sapporo Nisai Stakes in September and the Grade III Artemis Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse Oct. 31.
Satono Reinas, a Deep Impact filly, also entered the Hanshin fray undefeated. She won her first start at Tokyo Racecourse in June, then won the Saffron Sho at Nakayama on Oct. 4. Meikei Yell, who finished fourth in Sunday's race, also suffered her first defeat after three wins.
Sodashi's color is rare. Her dam, Buchiko, was listed officially as white but had extensive black markings.
Island Brave came from well back of a moderate pace to win the Betway Conditions Stakes at Newcastle Saturday -- a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship on Finals Day on April 2.
Island Brave, a 6-year-old, rallied down the middle of the track past Raymond Tusk and Australis, winning by 1/2 length. Australis was second and Rainbow Dreamer finished third.
"I am absolutely delighted with that as I have had my eye on this race for quite a while," said winning trainer Heather Main. "We will back off him now over the Christmas period, just to freshen him up, and then he will have at least one run in the build up to Finals Day."
Meanwhile, back in the States:
The $200,000 Grade II Fort Lauderdale Stakes on the turf is intended as a prep for the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational in January and Saturday's all-long shot finish might shuffle the desk for that big race.
When all was said and done, Largent, Doswell and Breaking the Rules all rallied from off the pace to finish 1-2-3 with Largent 2 lengths the best. The favorites, Halladay and Factor This, faded from a pace battle and got home seventh and eighth.
Largent, a 4-year-old Into Mischief gelding, got 1 1/8 miles on good turf in 1:46.16 with Paco Lopez riding for trainer Todd Pletcher. Although he was trying graded stakes company for the first time, he already had proved himself with five wins and three seconds from eight earlier starts.
"He's always run well here and he's a horse that has shown some talent," Pletcher said of Largent.
"This was definitely his toughest task to date but he showed that he likes it here and delivered a big performance. I think he certainly ran well enough today to earn a spot into the Pegasus, which we'd love to do."
Tax blasted right to the lead from the inside gate in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Harlan's Holiday Stakes, led all the way and shook clear at the end to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
Eye of a Jedi was second, 1/2 length better than Phat Man. Tax, a 4-year-old Arch gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.15 with Luis Saez up. The result probably did nothing to dissuade trainer Danny Gargan from considering a return to the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational next month.
Tax defeated only one of his nine rivals in this year's edition of the Pegasus but Gargan said he's a different horse now.
"I think this will be his best year, Gargan said. "He's grown, developed. He's sound. He's bigger, stronger than he's ever been. I couldn't be happier with him today."
Letruska, the solid favorite, led all the way in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Rampart Stakes for fillies and mares, kicking away at the end to win by 6 3/4 lengths.
Dream Marie was second, 3/4 length in front of Bajan Girl. Letruska, a 4-year-old Super Saver filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.03 with Emisael Jaramillo up for trainer Fausto Gutierrez.
She now is 3-for-3 at Gulfstream Park and also has victories at Oaklawn Park and Saratoga since being sent north from Mexico, where she was a dual Group 1 winner.
"We'll stay here and we'll decide what's possible," Gutierrez said. "I think we'll stretch her out next time."
Lady's Island was quickly out front in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sugar Swirl Stakes for fillies and mares, and then held on gamely to win by a head over Bronx Beauty.
Cinabunny was 3/4 length farther back in third. Lady's Island, a 6-year-old mare by Greatness, completed 6 furlongs in 1:10.46 with Jaramillo in the irons. She won this race last year, finished second in the Grade II Honorable Miss at Saratoga this summer, and then was sixth in the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland on her way south.
Closers held sway in Saturday's $75,000 My Charmer Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf.
Niko's Dream got first run to the lead and edged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Tuned came from last of seven to finish second, 1/2 length to the good of Art of Almost, while the early leader, Piedi Bianchi, weakened to finish fourth.
Niko's Dream, a 4-year-old Central Banker filly campaigned by Sackatoga Stable, finished 1 1/16 miles on good going in 1:41.82 under Junior Alvarado.
Tampa Bay Downs
Shivaree ralled from a pace-stalking position to win Saturday's $100,000 FTBOA Marion County Florida Sire Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths. Jackson chased the early leader, took over for a time and held on for second.
The favorite, Noble Drama, came from well back to be third. Shivaree, a 3-year-old colt by Awesome of Course, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.68 under Roberto Alvarado.
In the companion City of Ocala Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, Heiressall pressed the pace before launching a challenge into the stretch, then drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Independent Miss and The Goddess Lyssa filled out the trifecta.
Heiressall, a 5-year-old mare by Wildcat Heir, finished in 1:23.35 with Antonio Gallardo up.
Only four New York-bred fillies and mares answered the starter for Sunday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes with Lucky Move using a late move to defeat the favorite, Mrs. Orb, by 1/2 length.
Singular Sensation and Firenze Freedom completed the order of finish. Lucky Move, a 6-year-old Lookin at Lucky mare, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:56.54 with Kendrick Carmouche riding. Lucky Move and Mrs. Orb also finished 1-2 in their last start, the Empire Distaff at Belmont Park on Oct. 24.
Bankit rated through much of the first mile in Saturday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb Stakes for New York-breds, took the lead from the favorite, Mr. Buff, in the stretch and went on to win by 4 3/4 lengths.
Mr. Buff held second, 3 lengths in front of Yankee Division. Bankit, a 4-year-old colt by Central Banker, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:51.59 with Jose Lezcano riding for trainer Steve Asmussen. The win was his first since the New York Derby at Finger Lakes in July 2019.
On Louisiana Champions Day for state-breds:
The $150,000 Classic went to 52-1 long shot Grand Luwegee, a 5-year-old El Corredor gelding. He led most of the way, was headed by the favorite, Shang, but then found just enough to put a head in front at the finish, completing 1 1/8 miles on the muddy track in 1:52.03. Colby Hernandez rode.
Sir Wellington, the even-money favorite, took charge in the final furlong of the Juvenile, winning by 2 lengths over Standing Perfect. The Palace colt got 6 furlongs on a muddy, sealed track in 1:11.81 under Marcellino Pedroza.
Big Time put in a big move in the stretch to win the Lassie for 2-year-old fillies by 3 1/2 lengths over Taylor Avenue. The Astrology filly got 6 furlongs through the mud in 1:11.97 for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
Monte Man rallied to the lead in the stretch run of the Sprint and won off by 2 1/2 lengths, finishing 6 furlongs on the muddy track in 1:10.60 with Beschizza in the irons.
Our Lost Love, a 3-year-old daughter of Half Ours, won the Ladies Sprint, leading throughout and holding off Mr. Al's Gal by a nose at the end. Our Lost Love found the wire in 1:11.93 with Mitchell Murrill up.
Ninety One Assault raced in mid-pack early in the Turf, rallied five-wide at the quarter pole and rolled home first by 1 length over Afleet Ascent.
The 7-year-old Artie Schiller gelding ran 1 1/16 miles for jockey Shaun Bridgmohan in 1:46.86. Room to Finish closed smartly in the late going to win the Ladies Turf by 1 1/2 lengths from Net a Bear.
Room to Finish, a 5-year-old Giant Oak mare got 1 1/16 miles over the good going in 1:46.14 with Adam Beschizza riding.
On Friday, Alabama-breds got a chance in the $50,000 Magic City Classic. Liken It, a 27-1 shot, ran by pacesetting favorite Foolish Steve at the furlong pole and went on to win by 3/4 length over that rival.
Two Mikes N Doc G was third. Liken It, a 3-year-old gelding by Doc N Bubba G, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.73 with Pedroza up. Without checking, we'll guess Doc N Bubba G must be a hot property in 'Bama.
Sensible Cat rallied from midfield to win Saturday's $100,000 Soviet Problem Stakes for 2-year-old, California-bred fillies by 1 3/4 lengths. Governor Goteven edged the favorite, Dylans Wild Cat, for second. Sensible Cat, a Bluegrass Cat filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.94. Juan Hernandez rode for trainer Carla Gaines.
The Road to the Roses?
That's a question mark because it's still way to early to tell. Nonetheless, there were some impressive debut wins by 2-year-olds:
Prime Factor, a Quality Road colt owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, debuted Saturday at Gulfstream Park, winning by 8 3/4 lengths while geared down through the last of the 6 furlongs by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
The $900,000 yearling purchase "exceeded expectations. We have high hopes for him," trainer Todd Pletcher said.
Manor House drew off to win his career bow by 12 1/4 lengths, going 1 mile at Laurel Park on Saturday. The Upstart colt, trained by Mike Stidham, finished in 1:38.31, eased through the late going by jockey Carrasco.