As Hong Kong wrapped up the final big international meeting of 2016, American 2-year-olds were out in force during the weekend looking to make their place for the drama to unfold in 2017.
In Japan, the mighty Frankel got his first Grade I winner -- also a 2-year-old showing a world of promise.
Let's go around the world another time, starting in:
The local team and a big and talented contingent from Japan swept all before them in Sunday's Longines Hong Kong International Races, the final major international gathering of 2016.
The finale of the four-race Group 1 extravaganza was the Longines Hong Kong Cup, pitting last year's winner, A Shin Hikari, against the winner of last year's Hong Kong Mile, Maurice.
A Shin Hikari, with Yutaka Take in the irons, shot out of the gate and took the lead into the first turn, opened up a 7-lengths lead near the end of the backstretch and looked well on his way to a repeat win. Maurice, after a bit of an awkward start, was some 20 lengths behind the leader.
But A Shin Hikari, who had acted up in the parade ring, hit the wall with about 200 meters left in the 2,000-meters Cup. As he backed up badly, jockey Ryan Moore had Maurice in full flight, ran up right behind the leader and around him and shot away to a 3-lengths victory.
Hong Kong's Secret Weapon finished second, 1/2 length to the good of another Japanese starter, Staphanos. A Shin Hikari beat only two rivals.
The international races commenced with the Longines Hong Kong Vase -- a 2,400-meters event that usually provides an opportunity for overseas horses as the distance is seldom run in Hong Kong.
Globetrotting star Highland Reel, fresh off a victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf, was the heavy favorite to repeat as winner of this event. But, like A Shin Hikari, he was unable to maintain a big lead and was passed in deep stretch by Japan's Satono Crown, who scored his first Group 1 win by 1/2 length.
One Foot In Heaven, representing France, was along for third, 6 3/4 lengths farther back, and Nuovo Record, another Japanese runner, finished a good fourth. Local jockey Joao Moreira rode Satono Crown for the first time. The disappointment in the race was England's Big Orange, who put in a challenge early on the backstretch but quickly fell back and finished 11th.
While Japan won the bookend races, the middle legs of the day's Group 1 program were all about Hong Kong horses.
Aerovelocity, winner of the 2014 Longines Hong Kong Sprint, defied his 8 years to eke out a short-head victory over relative youngster Lucky Bubbles in this year's edition. Last year's winner, Peniaphobia, was only 1/2 length farther back in third and Amazing Kids made it a 1-2-3-4 finish for the home team in a race they usually dominate. It was the 13th win for Hong Kong in 18 runnings of the Sprint.
The story was the same in the Longines Hong Kong Mile. With Maurice moving up to the Cup, Beauty Only had a chance to shine and took full advantage, defeating Helene Paragon by 1/2 length and Joyful Trinity by the same margin again. Contentment made it a clean sweep for Hong Kong. Beauty Only had been knocking on the door, finishing fourth behind Maurice in the Champions Mile at the end of last season.
In light of the strong challenge from Japan, local analysts had forseen a down year for Hong Kong on its biggest day. Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbgrecht-Bresges begged to differ when the day was done.
"Some people were skeptical about the chances of the Hong Kong horses before the races," he said as the smoke from the annual pyrotechnics wafted over the Sha Tin infield. "But they showed the 'can do' spirit of Hong Kong and they showed, especially with the first four home in both the Sprint and the Mile, that we have world class horses capable of beating top-class international horses."
The performance was made even sweeter by attendance of 100,710 at Hong Kong's two tracks, a 17.4 percent increase over 2015, and a 4.7 percent increase in turnover on the 10-race card to HK$1.5 billion, or slightly more than US$195 million.
Earlier in the week's festivities, Longines and the HKJC announced an extension of their sponsorship agreement. Longines took over as title sponsor in 2012. The term of the extension was not announced but reported to be another five years. The Swiss watchmaker has sponsored equestrian events worldwide for more than a century and a half.
Soul Stirring became the first Grade I winner for hot sire Frankel as the filly rather easily ran to her third win without a loss while taking Sunday's Hanshin Juvenile Fillies by 1 1/4 lengths.
Jockey Christophe Lemaire let Soul Stirring sit just off the pace and along the rail through the turn. She then advanced inside the leaders and came home with a single tap of the whip. Lys Gracieux made a bold late run to take second and Reine Minoru was third. Soul Stirring, out of the multiple Group 1-winning French-bred Monsun mare Stacelita, ran 1,600 meters on firm going in 1:34.0.
"I'm ecstatic," Lemaire said. "It's so special because I used to also ride her dam Stacelita and Soul Stirring is out of her and by that great horse Frankel. I was confident from the beginning and we were in a good position and she was relaxed. She easily hit the front at the stretch and with her big strides and stamina, I think she can go a little bit further in distance."
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Road to the Roses
Mastery dueled for the lead in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Los Alamitos, put away rival Bobby Abu Dhabi and raced off to win by 7 1/4 lengths in his two-turn debut. Irap and Dangerfield filled the trifecta slots. Bobby Abu Dhabi and Show Me Da Lute completed the order of finish.
Mike Smith steered Mastery, a Candy Ride colt, over 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.56 with blinkers back on. He now is 3-for-3 after winning the Bob Hope at Del Mar in just his second start for trainer Bob Baffert.
"You don't know how they are going to do going two turns for the first time until they try it," Baffert said. "Turning for home he hit a bit of a lull and l didn't know if he was going to go on or flatten out. Mike said it was a good thing I put the blinkers back on him because he hit the brakes when he made the lead. The last part he threw it in another gear."
Mastery earned 10 points toward a potential start in next year's Kentucky Derby and moved into a six-way tie for third on that leaderboard.
A pair of Fair Grounds invaders got home 1-2 in Sunday's $300,000 Remington Springboard Mile at Remington Park in Oklahoma. The favorite, Cool Arrow, led all the way and finished 3 1/2 lengths ahead of Totality. U S Officer was third. Cool Arrow, an Into Mischief colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.72 with Luis Saez in the irons for trainer Joe Sharp. Cool Arrow picked up his third win from six starts. Totality, a Tapit colt, also trains at Fair Grounds for Steve Asmussen.
Fact Finding was on the lead early in Saturday's $75,000 Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Park and extended the advantage pole-by-pole en route to a 7-lengths victory. Basha and Skinflint filled out the trifecta as Fact Finding, a The Factor colt, ran 1 mile over the sloppy, sealed track in 1:36.98.
"He showed us today that he should be able to handle the stretch-out from a mile," said Pletcher, who saddled four winners on the all-juvenile card. "The time stacked up favorable for the day. It was a quality effort from him."
Sonic Mule led from the start in Saturday's $75,000 Buffalo Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Talk Logistics. The odds-on favorite, Recruiting Ready, settled for third over the sloppy track. Sonic Mule, a Distorted Humor colt, got 6 furlongs in 1:10.67 with Velazquez riding for Pletcher. He scored his second career win but has never been worse than third in six starts against talented rivals. Pletcher said he will point the colt to the Grade II Hutcheson on Jan. 7 at 6 furongs.
"For now we'll keep him short and then we'll let him stretch his way out if he wants to," he added.
Tapwrit came from off the pace to take Saturday's $75,000, off-the-turf Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park, winning by 1 length after taking a nice lead early in the stretch run. Master Plan ran well late to finish second and Hey Mike was another 12 1/4 lengths back in third. Tapwrit, a Tapit colt, ran 1 mile on the sloppy main track in 1:37.65 with Eddie Castro in the irons. Eight entrants were scratched due to the surface switch. It was his second win in a row after a career-opening thumping at Saratoga.
"I think everything is in play now," Pletcher said. "We'll see how he comes out of it. He's seems to be going the right way. We'll target one of these stakes. I'm not sure which one yet."
Greatbullsoffire cut loose in the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Futurity for state-breds at Laurel Park and drew clear to a 6-lenghts victory. Bonus Points was second with In Arrears third, another 1 3/4 lengths in arrears. Greatbullsoffire, a Bullsbay colt, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.85 with Alex Cintron riding.
Saint's Fan overcame the outside post position to win Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile for state-breds at Fair Grounds by 2 lengths over Laughingsaintssong. Jack Snipe's was third. Saint's Fan, a Tale of Ekati colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.74 with Brian Hernandez Jr. up. He defeated open maidens in his career debut at Churchill Downs and remains undefeated in two outings.
"I don't think you've seen the best of him yet," Hernandez said.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Abel Tasman outfinished heavy favorite American Gal, winning Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos by 1 length. American Gal moved to the lead in the stretch after stalking the pace but could not hold off the long shot winner in the final yards. Mopotism, another double-digit chance, ran evenly and faded late to finish third.
Abel Tasman, a Quality Road filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.25 with Joe Talamo in the irons. It was her third straight win in her first stakes try. American Gal was coming off a third-place finish in her last start.
"We thought she would definitely be more forwardly placed, but Joe went to Plan B and it worked out," said winning trainer Simon Callaghan. "He saved ground and gave her a real chilly ride. I think the distance is the key for this filly." The win earned Abel Tasman 10 points toward a place in the 2017 Kentucky Oaks starting gate, placing her in a seven-way tie for third on that list.
Bode's Dream continued to fulfill expectations with a front-running 2 3/4-lengths victory in Saturday's $75,000 House Party Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Bodemeister filly, with Velazquez up again for Todd Pletcher, always looked unassailable while finishing 6 furlongs over a sloppy, sealed track in 1:11.16. Wildcat Kate was best of the rest, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Brahms Cat. The favorite, Yes I'll Go, never reached contention and finished fifth.
Bode's Dream improved to 3-for-3 including the $200,000 Astoria Stakes at Belmont Park in her second race.
"She'd been training well, but it's been a while since she ran. We had her ready off the layoff," Pletcher said. "The one thing she has is exceptional gate speed. She broke and it was pretty straightforward after that." He said her speed indicates Bode's Dream's future is as "a quality sprinter."
Perfect Wife led from the early jumps in Sunday's $100,000 Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park and coasted home first by 5 lengths. The favorite, Torrent, was best of the rest with Gris Gris third, another 1 3/4 lengths back. Perfect Wife, by Majesticperfection, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.37 with Corey Lanerie riding. She broke her maiden at Keeneland and now is 2-for-3 for trainer Kenny McPeek.
Lirica stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Hut Hut Stakes at Gulfstream Park, moved to a daylight lead in the lane and coasted home first, 1 length to the good of My Cousin Martha. My Lerler, the favorite, was another 10 1/2 lengths back in third. Lirica, a Kantharos filly, ran 1 mile in the slop in 1:39.68 with Edgard Zayas up. It was her third win from six starts.
Party Boat outfinished Bitacora in the final jumps to take Saturday's $75,000 off-the-turf Wait a While Stakes at Gulfstream Park by a neck. India Mantuana was third. Party Boat, an Into Mischief filly, ran 1 mile on the sloppy main track in 1:40.06 for jockey Joel Rosario. She has won three in a row for trainer Graham Motion.
Aptly named Ivana's Wish led from the early yards of Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Champions Day Lassie for state-breds at Fair Grounds and rolled home first by 1 1/2 lengths at odds of nearly 20-1. The favorite, Our Millie, put a head in front briefly at mid-stretch but then settled for second, 1 length ahead of Chases Dixie Belle. Ivana's Wish, a Custom for Carlos filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.89.
"The trainer told me that last time she broke a bit flat footed and made a middle move and it was not the best setup for her," said winning rider Florent Geroux. "She broke very sharply and I was able to take the lead pretty easily."
You've gotta love a Maryland-bred filly named Crabcakes. And, if you did, you were rewarded to the tune of $6.60 when she won Saturday's $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship for state-breds at Laurel Park. By Great Notion out of the Charismatic mare Aunt Elaine, Crabcakes stalked the pace, scuttled to the lead in the lane and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Lucky in Malibu. Fear No Evil was third. With Angel Rodriguez up, Crabcakes ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.95.
Honeymoon Cruise caught pacesetting Unaquoi in deep stretch and went on to win Saturday's $50,000 Eleanor Casey Memorial for West Virginia-bred 2-year-old fillies at Charles Town by 1/2 length over that rival. The favorite, Scottish Denis, was another 4 lenths back in third. Honeymoon Cruise, a daughter of Archarcharch out of the Gilded Time mare Gildey, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:28.71 with Arnaldo Bocachica up.
In other action:
Paulassilverlining, the prohibitive favorite, ran to her notices in Saturday's $125,000 Garland of Roses Stakes for fillies and mares, emerging from behind the pace to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Disco Chick. It was another 6 1/4 lengths back to My Savannah Belle in third. Paulassilverlining, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly, finished 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.60 with Jose Ortiz up.
A consistent graded stakes performer in New York, Paulassilverlining was coming off a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She passed the $1 million mark in earnings and trainer Michelle Nevin said it will be up to owner Vinny Scuderi whether she retires or runs again as a 5-year-old. "She's a solid filly that likes to work so we'll see what happens," Nevin said.
Isabelle dominated in the stretch in Sunday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares, kicking away to a 5 1/2-lengths victory over the favorite, Super Surprise. Kathy's Humor was third. Isabelle, a 5-year-old Successful Appeal mare, negotiated 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:47.16 under Kendrick Carmouche.
Lovable Lady stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Willa On the Move Stakes for fillies and mares, moved to the lead when asked by Hector Karamanos and kicked away to win by 4 1/2 lenghts over Athena. It was another 2 1/4 lengths back to the odds-on favorite, Hot City Girl. Lovable Lady, a 5-year-old Not For Love mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.56.
Just Jack rallied to the lead nearing the sixteenth pole in Saturday's $100,000 Howard M. Bender Memorial and ran on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Final Prospect finished second, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of late-running favorite, Rockinn On Bye. Just Jack, a 3-year-old Great Notion gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.70 with Alex Cintron in the irons.
Golden Gate Fields
Saturday's $50,000 Miss America Stakes for 3-year-old fillies came off the turf but no matter to Lady Valeur, who tracked the pace before moving on to win by 1 1/4 lengths from Mon Petite. Hijra was third. Lady Valeur, an Irish-bred daughter of Multiplex, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.35 with Ricardo Gonzalez up.
Saturday was Louisiana Champions Day in the Big Easy. The track was fast, the turf was firm.
Mobile Bay stalked the pace in the $150,000 Classic, took the lead on the turn for home and drew off, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. Mageez was second and The Pickett Factor third. The favorite, Sunbean, finished last of six in a dull effort. Mobile Bay, a 4-year-old colt by Lone Star Special, ran 9 furlongs in 1:51.13 with Diego Saenz riding.
Big World pressed the pace in the $100,000 Ladies, took the lead and then dueled with Forest Lake down the lane before winning by a neck. Pacific Pink was third. Big World, a 3-year-old daughter of Custom for Carlos, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.06 under Florent Geroux, recently returned from Hong Kong's Jockey Challenge.
Hail to the Nile led from the start in the $100,000 Turf, was headed briefly by Fort Pulaski but came again to win by 3/4 length over that rival. The favorite, String King, was another 1/2 length back in third. Hail to the Nile, a 5-year-old gelding by Pioneerof the Nile, ran about 1 1/16 miles on the greensward in 1:43.88 with Francisco Torres up.
Wheatfield got by pacesetting Sunny Oak in the late going to take the $100,000 Ladies Sprint by 3 3/4 lengths over that one with Illussion Artist third. Wheatfield, a 4-year-old daughter of Lone Star Special, ran 6 furlongs on the main track in 1:09.89 with Saenz in the irons.
My Friend Flavin was along late to upset the $100,000 Sprint, beating the favorite, Jockamo's Song, by 3/4 length. Just Kissing Buck was third. My Friend Flavin, a 4-year-old Forestry gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.60 under Robby Albarado.