Highland Reel captures the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase 12/13 at Sha Tin, defeating Flintshire. (HKJC photo)
The Longines Hong Kong International Races wound up the international racing year Sunday with the emergence of some potential superstars from as far afield as Japan and Ireland.
The American 2-year-olds, meanwhile continued their early sorting process leading to the 2016 Kentucky Oaks and Derby and beyond with big races in California and Oklahoma.
Fair Grounds in New Orleans celebrated Louisiana Champions Day. And Hawthorne Race Course honored a former Illinois governor.
Let's elect to move right to it.
A pair of Japanese horses burst onto the international stage with impressive victories over local rivals in Sunday's Longines Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin. British-based Ryan Moore rode two winners and Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien sent out his first-ever winner in the series.
It was the first time since 2010 -- and only the second time in the past decade -- that Hong Kong horses had failed to win at least two of the HKIR races. Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresches said the locals ran well against unusually stiff competition but added, "This might encourage our owners to get even better horses."
The bright spot for Hong Kong was the Longines Hong Kong Sprint as Peniaphobia overcame the handicap of the No. 14 gate to edge favored Gold-Fun by 1/2 length for victory. Not Listenin'tome and Dundonnell completed a Hong Kong sweep of the top four placings. Jockey Joao Moreira gunned Peniaphobia right out of the gate and to the lead, slowed things down briefly mid-race and had enough horse left in the final 200 meters to hang on. "I had to use him on the backstretch a little bit so (in the stretch), I held onto him as long as I could," Moreira said. Trainer Tony Cruz said Peniaphobia, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Dandy Man, is targeted for Dubai "and then maybe England as well." The two American runners, Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday and Green Mask, third in that event, ran well Sunday, finishing respectably fifth and eighth.
Highland Reel kicked things off on the big day with a big win over French-based defending champion Flintshire in the Longines Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters. Moore, riding for O'Brien, put the 3-year-old Galileo colt on the lead early in the Vase, allowed a local longshot to shoot to the lead and then resumed the chase when the field turned for home. By then, Flintshire was in the hunt and briefly stuck a head in front. But Moore was getting everything Highland Reel had to offer and gradually edged away to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Flintshire held second, another 1 1/2 lengths to the good of French contender Dariyan. Yet another French horse, Ming Dynasty, was fourth. Highland Reel scored his first win at the highest level this summer in the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington International Racecourse. After finishing off the board in the Grade I Irish Champion Stakes back home, he went to Australia and got home a credible third in the Group I Cox Plate. "He really wanted it," Moore said. "Flintshire is a very high-class horse and he takes a lot of beating in these races." Moore said the long campaign has given Highland Reel "plenty of exposure around the world and a lot of experience" and he looks forward to his 4-year-old season.
In the third of the day's big events, Maurice got the advantage early in the stretch run in the Longines Hong Kong Mile and held off the favorite and defending champion, Able Friend for the victory. Giant Treasure, riding the rail, put a nose in front of Able Friend at the end but was no threat to the Japanese-based winner. Maurice, a 4-year-old colt by Screen Hero, had won five straight races in Japan, including the Group 1 Yasuda Kinen in Tokyo and the Group 1 Mile Championship at Kyoto. Sunday's victory puts him squarely in the frame among the world's top milers. Moore, who rode the colt for the second time, said Maurice actually was "slightly more impressive on the day" in Kyoto, citing the rigors of his first trip outside Japan.
The shock of the day came in the final race as A Shin Hikari blitzed the field in the Longines Hong Kong Cup. With Yutaka Take up, the 4-year-old Deep Impact colt set a steady, blazing pace and just kept going down the stretch. At the end, he was 1 length to the good of fellow Japanese runner Nuovo Record (with Moore up). Hong Kong's Blazing Speed finished third and last year's winner, Designs On Rome, was fourth. It was the first win at the Group 1 level for A Shin Hikari and his trainer said he will have to talk to the owner about whether he will return to Hong Kong in the spring for the Group I QE II Cup.
The races were run under overcast skies after heavy mid-week rains. Nothing discouraged the Hong Kong fans, however, as more than 85,000 turned out at Sha Tin and the in-town track, Happy Valley, to watch the highlight of the racing season.
Major Emblem, with Christophe Lemaire up, hustled up to stalk the pace in Sunday's Group 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, took the lead entering the stretch run and was never in danger, winning by 2 lengths over Win Fabulous as the favorite among 18. Blanc Bonheur was third. Major Emblem, a daughter of Daiwa Major, ran 1,600 meters on the right-handed turf course in 1:34.5. "She surprisingly broke very well and I'm glad we drew an inner stall," Lemaire said. "She is easy to ride and was relaxed today. She ran strongly to the finish line and I'm very happy we were able to claim the Group 1 race. She's an amazing filly and I'm sure she'll do well in the classics."
Street Fancy hit a new gear in the stretch run of Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Starlet for 2-year-old fillies, blew by most of her rivals and got clear to a 1-length victory. Stays in Vegas was second, followed by long shot Sutton's Smile. Trainer Bob Baffert's two, Pretty N Cool and Treasuring, dueled for the lead, then faded to finish fourth and fifth, respectively. Street Fancy, a Street Sense filly out of the Cat Thief mare Bold Angel, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:4.42 with Mike Smith up for trainer Phil D'Amato. She won at first asking at Santa Anita in October, then finished third in the Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar in her only other previous start. "She showed a lot of tenacity and fight," D'Amato said, "and Mike says we still haven't gotten to the bottom of her yet ... It's been three different distances at three different tracks and today we got the big one. She's a big, giant, scopey filly. She looks twice the size of anybody else in this field. I knew she wanted to go two turns. I was just hoping today was the day she showed she wanted it and she did."
Found Money battled Glory Bound into submission after a stretch duel in Saturday's $100,000 King Glorious Stakes for California-bred 2-year-olds and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. Tough It Out was 2 1/2 lengths farther in arrears in third. Found Money, a Square Eddie colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.46 with Mario Gutierrez up.
Discreetness, in from Kentucky, put a nose in front of local hope Suddenbreakingnews to win Saturday's $250,000 Remington Springboard Mile for 2-year-olds. The favorite, California-based Esposito, held a brief lead but settled for third, 3/4 length farther back. Discreetness, a Discreet Cat colt, finished in 1:39.14 over a sloppy, sealed track with Jon Court up for trainer William Fires. He now has won three of five starts.
My Master Plan led from the early jumps in Saturday's $100,000 Trapeze Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, under pressure most of the way, and held on at the end to win by a head over Dorodansa. The favorite, Family Tree, checked in third. My Master Plan, a Texas-bred daughter of Oratory, splashed 1 mile in 1:38.98 with Luis Quinonez up.
Bella Paella stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Useeit Stakes for Oklahoma-foaled 3-year-old fillies, then took over in the lane, winning by 2 1/4 lengths over Miss Oreo. Bella Paella, a Bellamy Road filly, got 1 mile on the sloppy track in 1:40.14 with David Cabrera in the irons.
Cassatt opened a comfortable lead midway through Saturday's $100,000 She's All In Handicap for fillies and mares, then survived a late run by Ribbon of Darkness, winning by a neck. The favorite, Savings Account, didn't show enough late interest and finished third. Cassatt, a 4-year-old Tapit filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in the slop in 1:42.96 for jockey Ramon Vasquez.
Delancy was out front early in Saturday's $50,000 Jim Thorpe Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds and held on to score by a nose over Air Assault. The favorite, Okey Dokey Kyle, finished third. Delancy, a Primary Suspect gelding, ran 1 mile in 1:39.53 with Vasquez in the irons.
Saturday was Louisiana Champions Day at the New Orleans oval, with races restricted to state-breds. The track was fast and the turf was firm.
The Pickett Factor stalked the pace in the $150,000 Classic, caught up to the runaway early leader leaving the backstretch run and ran away himself to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Mobile Bay was second and Storm Driver finished third. The Pickett Factor, a 3-year-old gelding by Gold Tribute out of the Dynaformer mare Dynaspice, ran 9 furlongs on the main track in 1:51.33 under Luis Quinonez. It was the rubber match for the two who first met in the Super Derby Prelude Stakes at Louisiana Downs on Aug. 8, with The Pickett Factor a clear 1 1/4-lengths winner and Mobile Bay in third. Mobile Bay turned the tables in the $400,000, Grade II Super Derby, winning by 2 1/4 lengths while The Pickett Factor faded to finish fourth, 3 1/2 lengths back. "We're going to give him a slight break right now," said winning trainer Ralph Irwin, adding the $200,000 Louisiana Premier Night championship at Delta Downs on Feb. 6 might fit the program. "If he handles that well, we'll take him up to Oaklawn."
Pacific Pink endured a rough trip in the $100,000 Ladies, closing in the final sixteenth to win by 3/4 length from Private Promise. Indian Wind finished third. Pacific Pink, a 3-year-old daughter of Private Vow, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.15 with Robby Albarado in the irons.
Jockamo's Song was along late to win the $100,000 Sprint by 1 length over Too Dim with the favorite, Heitai, third. Jockamo's Song, a 3-year-old gelding by Half Ours, toured 6 furlongs on the main oval in 1:10.78 under Mitchell Murrill.
Platinum Lady stalked the pace in the $100,000 Ladies Sprint, took over when asked and went on to post a 17-1 upset win, scoring by 1 1/4 lengths over Lady Grantham. Wind Chill Factor got show money. Platinum Lady, a 4-year-old filly by Half Ours, ran 6 furlongs on the main course in 1:11.88 with Albarado up.
Hot Zapper prevailed in a three-way photo in the $100,000 Turf, finishing a nose in front of the odds-on favorite, String King, and another neck in front of Hopeful Notion. Hot Zapper, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding out of the Alphabet Soup mare Hot Talent, ran about 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.17 with Jose Riquelme up.
Sea Vow dueled for the lead in the $100,000 Juvenile before forging away to win by 2 1/4 lengths from the late-running Mageez. Icy Gentleman was third and the favorite, Bayou Banker, broke down and was vanned off. Sea Vow, a Private Vow gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.79 for jockey Alexander Castillo.
Aunt Nellie rallied from next-last to take the $100,000 Lassie for 2-year-old fillies by 3 1/4 lengths over Conquest Tiz One. The favorite, Smittys Cougar, settled for third. Aunt Nellie, a Musket Man filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:12.36 with Roberto Morales in the irons.
On Friday, Buggin Out made a late move to win the $57,000 Magic City Classic for Alabama-breds by 3/4 length as the overwhelming favorite. Ira led early and held on gamely for second, 22 3/4 lengths ahead of Alabama Brass. Buggin Out, a 4-year-old gelding by Indy, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:40.22 with Richard Eramia in the irons.
Saythreehailmary's edged by the favorite, Sheriffa, in the late going to win Saturday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. Storied Lady finished third. Saythreehailmary's, a 4-year-old Repent filly, ran 1 1/16 miles over the fast inner track in 1:45.68 with Jose Ortiz up.
Cali Star tracked the early pace in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Rampart Stakes for fillies and mares, got through along the rail a quarter mile from home and went on to win by 3 lengths. Best Behavior was best of the rest, 1 3/4 lengths to the good of Stiffed in third. Cali Star, a 4-year-old Street Cry filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.35 with Tyler Gaffalione up.
Tuttipaesti outfinished the favorite, Hope Cross, in a battle of Irish-breds in Saturday's $100,000 South Beach Stakes for fillies and mares, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Lori's Store was third. Tuttipaesti, a 5-year-old Clodovil mare, finished 7 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:31.58 under Christopher DeCarlo.
Valid stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Harlan's Holiday Stakes, poked a head in front at the furlong marker and held well to win by 3/4 length over a late-running Madefromlucky. Mr. Jordan made the early going and finished third. Valid, a 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.27 with Javier Castellano in the irons. He was coming off a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Reporting Star reported home first by a head over Aztec Brave in Saturday's $100,000 El Prado Stakes. Macagone contended in the stretch run but faded to finish third, 2 3/4 lengths farther back. Reporting Star, a 5-year-old gelding by Circular Quay, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 1:31.29 for jockey Miguel Vasquez.
Hawthorne Race Course
Richie the Bull had way too much for five rivals in Saturday's $65,000 Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity for state-bred 2-year-olds, kicking away in the stretch run to win by 9 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Navy Seabee constructed a second-place finish, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Cashel Rock. Richie the Bull, a Benny the Bull colt out of the Five Star Day mare Richiesgirlgotgame, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.68 with E.T. Baird in the irons. The race is named for the former Illinois governor and noted owner/breeder Jim Edgar.
Golden Gate Fields
Circling circled the early leaders into the stretch in Saturday's $65,000 Miss America Stakes for fillies and mares and outfinished Journey On for a 1/2-length score. Lucy in Diamonds was third and the favorite, Emotional Kitten, was a sad fourth. Circling, a regally bred daughter of Galileo out of the Danehill mare Chanting, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.26 with Kyle Frey up. The race was moved off the turf.
News and notes:
Frankie Dettori was honored Thursday night in Hong Kong as the 2015 Longines World's Best Jockey. The Italian-born, British-based rider had a dream year, winning five qualifying races to go with four seconds and four thirds. That was good for 100 points. Last year's winner, Ryan Moore, and American Triple Crown winning rider Victor Espinoza amassed 90 points each to tie for third. Dettori's victories included four aboard Golden Horn -- the Investec Derby, Coral-Eclipse, QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes and the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. "Frankie Dettori is one of the stars of the racing world," said Louis Romanet, Chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities. "His ride in the Qatar Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Golden Horn was an absolute masterpiece. Furthermore, his consistency during the course of the year was remarkable. He is a deserving winner."
Ben's Cat, the 9-year-old Maryland sprinting star owned and trained by King Leatherbury, is off for a short vacation after finishing seventh in his last start at Penn National. The rest may be shorter than originally planned. When Leatherbury was informed about a race to be named the Ben's Cat Stakes March 19 at Laurel Park, he said, "Wow. I didn't know about that. Maybe I'll have to crank him back up a little earlier to get him ready for that." The homebred gelding, by Parker's Storm Cat, has won 30 of his 53 career starts and $2.49 million.