Three of Hong Kong's favorite horses delivered the goods Dec. 10 in the Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin Racecourse with 8-year-old Golden Sixty, recent Cox Plate (G1) winner Romantic Warrior, and champion sprinter Lucky Sweynesse all triumphant.
The races ran the gamut from a tight, three-way finish in the Hong Kong Cup (G1) to authoritative scores in the Sprint (G1) and Mile (G1).
The centerpiece was Golden Sixty overcoming all to win the HK$32 million (about US$4.1 million) Mile in a performance reminiscent of that turned in by Equinox just two weeks earlier in the Japan Cup (G1) in Tokyo.
As in Japan, the local crowd was solidly behind the heavy favorite and roared its approval from his first appearance on the track until he crossed the finish first, 1 1/4 lengths better than his closest rival. But unlike Equinox, who was perfectly prepared for his win, Golden Sixty had virtually nothing on his side in the buildup to the Mile.
Not only was the race the first of the season for the 8-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding, but he was forced to start from the tough No. 14 gate against a quality field of international runners. Question marks were everywhere despite the horse's record—25 wins from 29 starts, three times Hong Kong Horse of the Year, and twice winner of the Mile.
Jockey Vincent Ho, another local favorite, contributed a heady ride to complement Golden Sixty's unquestioned talent.
Parked out wide early in the race, Ho gradually got Golden Sixty closer in, never found cover but had him positioned perfectly as the field straightened for home. With 300 meters to run, he said, "Go," and Golden Sixty went. Reigning Hong Kong Derby winner Voyage Bubble was best of the rest, with Japan's Namur third.
"He's a monster," Ho said. "When I asked, he just gave me 100%. It's a great team effort to come here without any preparation and win this race."
The immediate question was, will Golden Sixty, a gelding, carry on through his golden age or retire on a high note as did Equinox, a colt highly sought for breeding?
"A lot of people say age eight is a concern," Ho said. "But to be honest, I never had any doubts. He's just an amazing horse. As long as he's healthy, as long as he's performing like this, is it the right thing to turn away?"
Trainer Francis Lui added, "I think he still enjoys the race. Let the horse tell you what to do."
Hong Kong Crown Prince Romantic Warrior Claims Cup
If Golden Sixty is the golden-age favorite of Hong Kong fans, Romantic Warrior was the 5-year-old crown prince even before he scored in the HK$36 million (about $4.6 million) Cup.
The Acclamation gelding, also a Hong Kong Derby winner and the defending champion in the Cup, came home from a narrow and hard-won victory in the Cox Plate Oct. 28. He was equally hard-pressed in the Cup renewal.
After taking a late lead in the stretch, jockey James McDonald had to cope with Irish star Luxembourg and Japanese rival Hishi Iguazu. With all three driving to the finish, it was Romantic Warrior by a short head and Luxembourg by a similar margin over the Japanese challenger.
"I think he's the toughest racehorse I've ever sat on," McDonald said.
Trainer Danny Shum added, "He's a tough horse. A long flight (back from Australia), quarantine. He can take it."
Lucky Sweynesse Not Just a Name in Sprint
In the Sprint, Lucky Sweynesse avenged a hard-luck defeat in last year's edition with an emphatic, stretch-running victory. For a brief moment, with 300 meters to go, it appeared the 5-year-old might fall victim to traffic again. But jockey Zac Purton got him outside two rivals, and he drove home stoutly, winning by 3/4 length over long shot Lucky With You. Last year's winner, 7-year-old Wellington, reported third as Lucky Sweynesse finished the 1,200 meters (about 6 furlongs) in 1:09.25.
Lucky Sweynesse, trained by Manfred Man, had a tough preparation for the Sprint, finishing second in each of his first two starts of the season, then struggling to win the local prep for Hong Kong's biggest race day. In those, the handicap conditions had him giving as much as 20 pounds to his rivals. The Sprint was run at equal weights.
"He deserved it," Purton said, thinking back a year and reflecting on his preparation this season. "I could just feel in the mornings that he was getting back to where he was… He did what he had to do. I love him."
Despite his defeat on International Day, his three group 1 wins earned Lucky Sweynesse year-end honors as the 2022-23 season's champion sprinter.
The Sprint, with purse money of HK$26 million (about $3.3 million), is billed as the richest turf sprint on the planet and the Hong Kong Jockey Club has been successful in keeping much of those riches in local pockets. Eight of the last 10 runnings of the Sprint went to Hong Kong-based horses.
Junko Commands Hong Kong Vase
French-trained Junko continued the foreign dominance of the HK$24 million (about $3 million) Hong Kong Vase (G1). The Intelo gelding missed the start in the 2,400-meter (about 1 1/2 miles) heat, trailed a slow pace, and came widest of all into the stretch. Despite it all, jockey Maxime Guyon had Junko clearly in front at the finish, winning by 1 length,
Japan's Zeffiro was second with a good effort, and Ireland's Warm Heart settled for third after taking a narrow lead on the stretch turn. The final time was a dawdling 2:30.12.
Junko, a Wertheimer & Frere homebred out of the Dynaformer mare Lady Zulu, led throughout his previous start, a victory in the Grosser Preis von Bayern (G1), run over soft turf Oct. 15 in Munich. Guyon said he wasn't worried about the slow launch in the Vase.
"I was not that far back," he said. "He was very relaxed. … We didn't know before the race if he would like this ground or not because normally he prefers the soft ground, but today in Hong Kong the ground was good."
Zeffiro's rider, Damian Lane, said, "He ran super." Ryan Moore, who piloted Warm Heart, said, "She ran great." Ho, who rode Senor Toba to finish fifth, said, "I've gone uphill faster than that."
Foreign-trained horses also captured the Vase in eight of the previous 10 years with Highland Reel victorious in 2015 and again in 2017 for trainer Aidan O'Brien and Mogul in 2020 for the same connections. Japanese horses won four of the past five editions, including the aptly named Glory Vase in 2019 and 2021.