Domestic racing continues on the back burner, although across the English Channel, behind closed doors, action could be set to start earlier than we all thought.
However, there is a huge day of racing in Hong Kong on Sunday with three Group One races on the Sha Tin card culminating in the feature QEII Cup due off at 09.40 (GMT).
Although also an oval track, Sha Tin is much bigger in circumference, just under 10 furlongs, and has beautifully drawn out, sweeping bends and a stiffer finish from the turn into the home straight of just on two and a half furlongs.
So it is a really good test of speed and stamina and I would probably say is more of a galloping track than a speed test.
The feature event takes in the best part of 11 furlongs and that distance is normally covered in 2 mins and 1 or 2 seconds, but last year the track record was blown out of the turf when Win Bright, a Japanese invader, shocked the local favourites with a 47/1 success, beating the 8/5 favourite Exultant by three quarters of a length in a shade over 1m 58 sec.
The last named is odds-on here to gain compensation in a field of just seven, 13 lined up last year, and it is particularly disappointing that the 2020 Hong Kong Derby winner Golden Sixty has bypassed this event as he would have been a massive danger to the hot market leader.
As far as the favourite Exultant is concerned, his back catalogue reads third in the 2017 Irish 2,000 Guineas behind Churchill when trained by Mick Halford. Tony Cruz then took over for his second season in the Far East and he has since amassed over £5m in prize money winning nine of his 23 races at the track.
Last year’s race also saw this year’s second favourite, Time Warp, finish well back in 11th place beaten 13 and a half lengths. He was drawn out wide in 10, obviously not great for a front runner, and was bugged for the lead some way out by the eventual fourth Glorious Forever before fading tamely. Two of Sunday’s other runners, Eagle Way, finished back in a never nearer ninth while Furore was a well beaten 10th.
However, Time Warp got his revenge on Exultant in the Hong Kong Gold Cup in February when he was allowed to dominate and got first run on his old rival under a quite brilliant ride from Joao Moreira who bossed the race in his own time from the front with conservative splits of 26.54 and 24.84. The hard-pulling favourite could never quite get to him.
I doubt this time around if the seven-year-old Time Warp will have his own way loose on the lead especially if Hong Kong Derby runner-up, Playa Del Puente puts in the same ‘Arazi like move’ he made in that big classic and make Time Warp work harder from further out.
If the race does develop earlier than it did in the Gold Cup then that would play to the strengths of the odds-on favourite and in a field of seven he will surely not have to come as wide into the home straight as he did last time out.
And that is the key to the Tony Cruz runner. As much as Moreira was outstanding on the winner, Zac Purton was moderate to say the least on Exultant. Although his mount pulled a fair bit, he had him too far back off a soft pace and then raced way too wide. He lost more ground with those tactics than the margin he was beaten.
And trainer Cruz is rightly confident saying in his final press conference: It’s a smaller field on Sunday so Exultant will be closer in the run. He was too far back last time and got into trouble and he just couldn’t catch Time Warp. I’m still disappointed with how that worked out for Exultant and he should have won that race.”
An obvious selection it may well be, but EXULTANT looks set to take his revenge and record a fourth Group One success for connections.
The Champions Mile (09.00) also has a tight favourite in the form of the seven-year-old bay gelding Beauty Generation, bidding to complete a hat-trick of wins in this £1.1m event over a mile.
He has twice beaten Ka Ying Star by half a length on his last three outings, but you could argue on each occasion was given by far the better ride and there is really desperately little between the pair.
Unlike in the QEII Cup there is sure to be more speed on here and that could very well suit the British-bred son of Dutch Art, MORE THAN THIS.
Winner of the 7f nursery handicap at the 2018 Glorious Goodwood meeting when trained by Richard Fahey, the four-year-old has since run 10 times at Sha Tin, winning four handicaps before running behind the hugely progressive Golden Sixty on his last three starts, but only beaten an aggregate of just five and a half lengths.
Last time out he recorded a career best third in the Hong Kong Derby with a never nearer third and granted the forecast fast pace, his guaranteed stamina down the home stretch could prove conclusive.
His draw in stall eight is not perfect, but he is a slow burner that grinds out his races and if he can get settled in behind horses and not race too wide I expect the bay gelding to cut down Beauty Generation close home.
However, if you are a forecast merchant put him in combinations.
Selection: More Than This
The Chairman’s Sprint Prize at 07.50 has a line up of nine course and distance winners in the 11 strong field. There is so much collateral form between these runners that fine margins may well decide the destiny of this sprint prize.
Several of these met in the Group Two Sprint Cup over the course and distance last time which was a moderately run race and produced a 232/10 upset in the form of Voyage Warrior who led all the way under a fabulous ride from Ricky Yiu.
I doubt those placings will be confirmed with Hot King Prawn (2nd) and Thanks Forever (3rd), but the joker in the pack was the beaten odds-on favourite that day AETHERO. The sole three-year-old in the field didn’t settle on his belated seasonal debut and then was badly caught on heels at halfway and half reared up losing momentum and ground on the home turn.
Despite that he still managed to look dangerous a furlong and a half out before those exertions and bad luck took his toll and he was allowed to come home in his own time by Zac Purton to finish last of the eight runners.
“He did something similar first-up last season so when he’s coming back fresh I think maybe it does take him a little bit sometimes to switch back on,” said his partner .“Hopefully after his trial last week he’ll do it,” jockey Purton added.
That comeback run should have taken the freshness out of him and if, as anticipated, they go a proper gallop this time, from a good sit in box number five he should take the beating.
*Prices correct at time of publishing but are subject to change