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Luxembourg trains Friday at Sha Tin Racecourse for Sunday's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club
HONG KONG, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- Sunday's Longines Hong Kong International Races, the final big international race meeting of the year, finds local heroes, including superstar Golden Sixty, facing a deep and talented roster of overseas invaders in four Group 1 events.
Two-year-old fillies are involved in the other big weekend races -- the Hanshin Juvenile Fillies in Japan and the Grade II Starlet at Los Alamitos in California. Otherwise, it's a pretty slow pre-holiday weekend in racing.
All four of Sunday's Group 1 races hold global interest, but the center ring is reserved for the Mile, where Golden Sixty, now a golden-aged 8, not only makes his first start of the season -- but also will have to start from the outside, No. 14 gate.
Golden Sixty is a three-time Hong Kong Horse of the Year and won this race in 2021 and 2022 before being dethroned last season by California Spangle. He holds a trophy case full of records and has won 25 of 29 starts.
California Spangle is back and in good form after two prep races. Japan has a strong contingent including Namur, winner of the Grade I Mile Championship in her last start. Trainer Aidan O'Brien has credible contenders in all four races, including 3-year-old Cairo in this heat.
"Of course, it's not an ideal draw and it makes things difficult for [jockey Vincent Ho]," said Golden Sixty's trainer, Frances Lui. "If you look at the field, I think California Spangle will lead and he will slow down the pace. It's going to be difficult."
If Golden Sixty is the reigning star in the Hong Kong firmament, 5-year-old Romantic Warrior is the ready to take his place as soon as a vacancy arises.
The 2022 Hong Kong Derby winner has gone on to a stellar career, winning this race a year ago and, most recently, venturing to Australia to win the Group 1 Cox Plate -- a massive achievement for his connections and hometown fans.
Romantic Warrior also has some tough competition, headed by the star of O'Brien's Irish squad, Luxembourg.
The 4-year-old colt won the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes last year and the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup this term and has been runner-up to good ones in two other top-level races.
Japanese runners have won the Cup in five of the last 10 years and feature strongly again with three of the 11 runners.
The Sprint, contested at 1,200 meters, also features two well-fancied and accomplished Hong Kong stars in 7-year-old Wellington, last year's winner, and 5-year-old Lucky Sweynesse.
Highfield Princess comes from England with a stellar international record. O'Brien fields another 3-year-old colt in Aesop's Fables. Japan is in with Mad Cool and Jasper Krone, both developing 4-year-olds.
The Hong Kong Vase is run at 2,400 meters, about 1 1/2 miles. That's a bit far for most Hong Kong horses so the race often is left as easy pickings for visitors.
This year looked to be Japan's turn with successful global star Shahryar set to run, but he was ordered out of the race on veterinarian's instructions, leaving a field of nine.
Yet another of O'Briens' string, 3-year-old filly Warm Heart, figures off wins in the Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks and Group 1 Prix Vermeille, both at the distance, and a second behind Inspiral in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her most recent start at 2,000 meters.
Two year-old fillies go at it Sunday in the Grade 1 Hashin Juvenile fillies, the race that a year ago launched Liberty Island on her way to stardom.
Liberty Island, who two weeks ago finished second behind only Equinox in the Grade 1 Japan Cup, was a relative unknown before the Juvenile Fillies score. So, too are the 18 lining up for the 2023 renewal.
Several of the youngsters are making just their second start. A few are undefeated and others have had previous experience in minor graded stakes. It should be a merry mix.
Meanwhile, back in the States, it's a light schedule indeed.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Starlet at Los Alamitos has a field of six. Two of the favorites, Nothing Like You and Grazia, are trained by Bob Baffert.
Nothing Like You seeks her third straight win. The Mark Glatt charge Chatalas, winner of the Grade II Chandelier at Santa Anita but ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, also is well fancied..
Saturday is Louisiana Champions Day with seven stakes races for state-breds.