The Hong Kong International Races take the spotlight on racing's stage this weekend with four Group 1 events featuring turf runners from across the globe.
Gulfstream Park adds to the international flavor of the proceedings with the Caribbean Classic card on Saturday and Japan has the Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies on Sunday.
Back in North America, the youngsters get their chance in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity and Grade I Starlet on Saturday at Los Alamitos and Saturday's Display Stakes at Woodbine.
Aqueduct's feature is the Garland of Roses for filly and mare sprinters. Saturday is Louisiana Champions Day at Fair Grounds.
Starting with the big ones:
Hong Kong celebrates its biggest day of the year Sunday with four Group 1 events comprising the Longines Hong Kong International Races. Three of last year's winners, all representing the home team, return for repeat tries.
The 1 1/2-miles Longines Hong Kong Vase, often the least of the four, this year ranks as the most competitive with 14 horses from around the world.
Waldgeist comes off a fourth in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Turf in his last two starts for trainer Andre Fabre. Salouen, trained in England, was sixth in the Arc. Another English trainee, Prince of Arran, was third in the Melbourne Cup last time out. Lys Gracieux, a 4-year-old Japanese filly, exits a win in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Kyoto. Crocosmia was second in that race and opposes again.
Eziyra comes to the Vase after finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Two Irish runners come from Australia where Rostropovich finished fifth in the Melbourne Cup and Latrobe was second in the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes.
The Vase distance is not a familiar one for the local horses. But big-race trainer John Moore warned in the leadup to the race that Eagle Way, who won the local prep for the 1 1/4-miles Longines Hong Kong Cup in course-record time Nov. 18, should not be ignored.
The Longines Hong Kong Sprint finds Japan's top sprinter, Fine Needle, British raider Sir Dancealot and Singaporean hope Lim's Cruiser taking on a well-matched group of nine local runners. The locals, including last year's winner, Mr Stunning, have not been particularly consistent of late, leaving the way open for potential star Hot King Prawn to make his mark. The 4-year-old, one of four in the race for trainer John Size, won his last two starts, both times defeating Mr Stunning.
In the Longines Hong Kong Mile, reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year Beauty Generation will be one of the day's best-bet horses. He is undefeated in three starts on the season but wandered out dramatically in the stretch in his most recent outing. Still, rider Zac Purton said the 6-year-old is one of those "top horses that separate themselves from the rest. He feels fit, feels well. I'm certain he will run well."
Beauty Generation faces a powerful baker's dozen rivals in the Mile. The Japanese trio of Persian Knight, Mozu Ascot and Vivlos all have claims as Group 1 winners. French-trained Inns of Court was second in the Group 1 Prix de la Foret at Longchamp two starts back. One Master, trained by William Haggas, won the Foret and then went on to finish a respectable fifth in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs.
Haggas watched the filly work Friday morning on the Sha Tin turf and said, "To me she looks better in her coat than she did at the Breeders' Cup. She likes to travel and she's fit and well."
Persian Knight's trainer, Yasutoshi Ikee, schooled his charge in the paddock on a damp Friday morning. "The turf at Sha Tin is harder than ever, so hopefully it will rain more," Ikee said. "He is in very in good form, and of course I have all the numerical data on him, and that all says that he is pretty fit."
The day culminates in the Longines' Hong Kong Cup at 1 1/4 miles, normally the high point of the event but this year a bit short of numbers with just nine starters.
Last years' Cup winner, Time Warp, has been up and down this season in part because he has been trading blows on the lead with his full brother, Glorious Forever. One of the mysteries of this year's HKIR is whether either trainer will change tactics for the Cup. If not, Japanese runners Deirdre, Sungrazer and Stapanos would have a chance, as would aspirational British raider Stormy Antarctic.
Trainer Ed Walker, who seeks his first Group 1 win, has taken Stormy Antarctic from England to France to Germany and to the United States this year before landing in Hong Kong. The peak performance of that tour was a third in the Grade I Woodbine Mile.
"I'm amazed we're the only runner from Europe in the Cup," Walker said.
Sunday's Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, at 1,600 meters on the right-handed turf course, will be a coming-out party for one or more of the 18 starters. Which ones? A good question. Few have had a chance to show their talent, some with only one previous start.
Exceptions are Danon Fantasy, a Deep Impact filly who won the Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes Nov. 3 in her third career start, and Schon Glance, another Deep Impact filly and half-sister to Soul Stirring, who won the Grade 3 Artemis Stakes Oct. 27.
Nonetheless, the race is an important pointer to the future, launching the careers of such as Vodka, one of the brightest stars in the history of Japanese racing, who set the stakes record of 1:33.1 in 2006.
Doug Watson sent out the winner, Drafted, plus third-place Kimbear and seventh-place Almanaara in Thursday night's featured Garhoud Sprint sponsored by Al Tayer Motors at Meydan. Drafted caught front-running Ibn Malik in the late going for the win with Raven's Corner and High On Life filled out the top five. Any or all will be candidates for the Group 3 Dubawi Stakes Jan. 3 or the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round One the following week as the World Cup Carnival gets into full swing.
On the same card, Connor Beasley rode Walking Thunder to his second win in the 1,600-meters Lincoln for 2-year-olds. The winner is owned by the suddenly dominant, albeit newly formed, Phoenix Ladies' Syndicate. Look for Walking Thunder in UAE 2000 Guineas Trial Jan. 10 or the Group 3 Guineas itself on Feb. 7.
The All-Weather Championships continue apace with trainer Archie Watson sending out a pair of talented runners making a case for consideration in the Good Friday finals.
On Wednesday at Lingfield Park, trainer Archie Watson sent out Mango Tango to win the featured conditions race in her UK debut after an earlier career in France and Qatar. The 5-year-old mare was group placed in France before shipping to Qatar where Tom Biggs bought her for Watson.
"There is a great series of 10-furlong races here during the All-Weather Championships," Watson said. "We will go to the Quebec Stakes (Dec. 22) next and then you have races like the Winter Derby Trial, Winter Derby and Magnolia Stakes at Kempton before Finals Day.
A day earlier over the same course, Watson saw last seasons 32Red Three-Year-Old All-Weather Champion Corinthia Knight prevail by 1 1/2 lengths in a 5-furlongs sprint.
Watson said: "That was some performance from Corinthia Knight," the trainer said. "I think he ran 120p (rating) with Timeform. You would be winning Group races for fun running like that ... He will be aimed at the sprint final on Good Friday and will run in all the conditions races and Fast-Track Qualifiers on the way there."
The next Fast-Track Qualifier race is Saturday at Wolverhampton and features 10 2-year-olds, among them Charming Kid, third in the Group 2 July Stakes at Newmarket during the Flat season.
Back in North America:
Ready for another Bob Baffert Derby contender owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club -- the principals in Justify's 2018 Triple Crown run? That would be Improbable, the 6-5 morning line favorite for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Los Alamitos. The City Zip colt is 2-for-2, the second win being a romping, 7 1/4-lengths triumph in the Street Sense Stakes on Breeders' Cup weekend at Churchill Downs.
Bob Hope Stakes winner Mucho Gusto could provide some upgraded competition for the favorite and Extra Hope is not without hope despite a fourth-place showing in the Hope. Six are to face the starter.
Nine young hopefuls are entered for Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Display Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather. The morning-line favorites are The Boss Factor and Sir Winston.
The Boss Factor, a gelding by The Factor, broke his maiden on the third try Nov. 11, winning by 7 1/2 lengths over the same surface as Saturday's race. Josie Carrol trains. Sir Winston, an Awesome Again colt, also took three tries to find the winner's circle and then finished third in the Grade III Grey Stakes in October for trainer Mark Casse.
The 2-year-old fillies
Baffert has the top two on the morning line for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos -- Chasing Yesterday and Mother Mother. Chasing Yesterday, a half sister to American Pharoah, has won three of four starts. Mother Mother was second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutant, then won the Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs in her last outing. Six are set for this one.
Only five turned out for Saturday's $100,000 Garland of Roses for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs. But the field is a tough one with the likes of even-money favorite Vertical Oak, Dream Pauline and Sower set to go at it. Vertical Oak earned preference by finishing in the money in all seven previous starts this year.
Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Valedictory, 14 furlongs on the all-weather track, drew a field of eight, three of them from Kevin Attard's barn. Of those, Melmich seeks second Valedictory win while Pumpkin Rumble tries for a third straight win. A A Azula's Arch exits a win in the Maple Leaf Stakes Nov. 3.
Also on the Sunday card is the $125,000 Ontario Lassie for province-bred 2-year-old fillies.
Saturday's program is a festival for Latin American and Caribbean horses, featuring the $300,000 Clasico del Caribe. That race, at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds, attracted Kukulkan, undefeated in 13 starts and Mexico's Triple Crown champion, who was installed as the 3-4 morning-line favorite.
In the $100,000 Copa Confraternidad del Caribe, last year's Classico winner, Jala Jala, again will try to get the best of male competition and her elders while going 1 1/4 miles.
Fausto Gutierrez trains both Kukulkan and Jala Jala.
"I don't know why he's so favored, Gutierrez said of Kukulkan. "These are just numbers. It's not reality. The horse looks good. He's had good adaptation ... I think he's ready."
Of Jala Jala, he said, "Now there is pressure because all the eyes are on her. But this is the position every trainer wants to have."
Three other stakes complete the international program, which was staged outside the Latin America-Caribbean region for the first time last year when it came to Gulfstream Park.
News and Notes:
A sad note: Terry Wallace, Oaklawn Park track announcer for 37 years, has died following a lengthy illness. Wallace began calling races at the Hot Springs, Ark., track in 1975 and called a record 20,191 consecutive races before ending his streak Jan. 28, 2011. He stepped down as announcer following the 2011 season but remained a popular ambassador for the track until his retirement in 2017.
"Terry was one of the legends of Oaklawn," Senior Vice President Eric Jackson said. "For generations of Arkansas racing fans, he was the voice of Oaklawn and for a time he was the most recognized voice in the state. It's a very sad day for the Oaklawn family as we have lost an important part of our history."