Let’s Take a Trip to Hong Kong

By J. Keeler Johnson

Continuing the "handicapping around the world" theme we started last week, let's turn our attention this Sunday to the FWD Champions Day card at Sha Tin in Hong Kong, which features a trio of competitive Group 1 races.

Most eyes will be focused on Hong Kong's reigning Horse of the Year Beauty Generation, who figures to start as the favorite in the FWD Champions Mile (G1). But we'll focus on the other two Group 1 events plus a Class 3 handicap that has drawn a promising up-and-comer.

Let's dig in!

Race 5: Chairman's Sprint Prize (G1, 1,200 meters)

#7 Voyage Warrior enters with the best recent form, having led all the way to nab an upset victory in the Sprint Cup (G2) over this course and distance on Apr. 5. But the Sprint Cup unfolded at a slow pace when favored #11 Aethero—normally a front-runner—got squeezed at the start, forcing him to race off the pace while buried behind horses. Aethero never fired, and Voyage Warrior cruised home on top in a race largely dominated by speed horses.

A different story figures to unfold on Sunday. Aethero is back and figures to be sharper in his second start of 2020, ensuring a contested pace. Three starts back, Aethero won the 1,200-meter Jockey Club Sprint (G2) by two lengths, leading all the way to record a blazing final time of 1:07.58 that missed the overall course record by just 0.08. A repeat of this effort would be sufficient to land Aethero in the winner's circle.

But I'm going to think a little outside the box and favor #2 Thanks Forever, conditioned by legendary trainer John Moore. Thanks Forever never had a fair chance to win the Sprint Cup, attempting to rally from behind the slow pace while racing wide without much cover. Yet the 4-year-old gelding showed resilience down the homestretch, battling on to finish third by just 1 1/4 lengths.

Thanks Forever showed he can compete at this level when employing pace-setting tactics to finish second by a head in the Jan. 19 Centenary Sprint Cup (G1). He's drawn post 11 for the Chairman's Sprint Cup, which isn't ideal, but my hope is to see Thanks Forever take back and make one late run. If a hot pace unfolds on Sunday—and it certainly should—Thanks Forever can be the one to capitalize at a nice price.

Race 6: Vengeance of Rain Handicap (Class 3, 1,400 meters)

The undefeated #1 Wellington possesses a wicked turn-of-foot, which has enabled the 3-year-old son of All Too Hard to compile a perfect 3-for-3 record sprinting 1,200 meters at Sha Tin this winter.

Wellington debuted in a Class 4 handicap on Jan. 27 and proved ton the best, settling in mid-pack before sprinting the final two 400-meter sectionals in :22.59 and :22.22 to win going away by three lengths. Stepping up to Class 3 company on Feb. 16 proved to be no obstacle, as he again produced terrific finishing fractions (:22.34 and :22.82) to gain seven lengths in the stretch and win by a neck.

For his most recent victory on Mar. 22, Wellington partnered with Hong Kong's reigning champion jockey Zac Purton for the first time and produced his strongest finish to date. Racing over a quick course, Wellington blazed home in :22.19 and :22.04 to win by a length in 1:08.55, far quicker than the class standard of 1:09.25 and just 0.23 shy of the course-and-class record (1:08.32) held by Aethero.

Purton will retain the mount for Sunday's race, and while Wellington is picking up 10 pounds off his last victory (toting top weight of 133 pounds), sticking to Class 3 company and stretching out over 1,400 meters should make him tough to beat. With anything resembling a clean trip, Wellington should land in the winner's circle once again.

For the exotics, I recommend playing #10 Fantastic Show and #3 Beauty Smile, who were separated by a neck when running 1-2 over this course, class, and distance two weeks ago. Fantastic Show has won three straight races under Hong Kong's current leading jockey Joao Moreira, while Beauty Smile—Group 3-placed as a 2-year-old in Ireland—could show improvement in his second local run.

Race 8: FWD QEII Cup (G1, 2,000 meters)

The consistent 6-year-old #1 Exultant hasn't missed the trifecta in his last 11 starts while scoring six group stakes victories, including three at the highest level. But I was a little disappointed by Exultant's effort in the 2,000-meter Citi Hong King Gold Cup (G1) on Feb. 16 at Sha Tin.  After dropping farther off the lead than usual in a slow-paced race, Exultant produced only a mild burst of speed down the homestretch, finishing in :23.63 to claim second place behind front-running winner #2 Time Warp.

Actually, Exultant has seemed a step slower across the board this season, suffering three defeats while favored at short prices. There isn't much speed at all in the FWD QEII Cup field, with Time Warp the only clear front-runner on paper, and I wonder if Exultant might prove vulnerable again at low odds.

Rather than back Exultant to win, I'll take a shot with the improving #6 Playa Del Puente. Trainer Danny Shum perfectly prepared the Irish-bred 4-year-old for a peak effort in the 2,000-meter Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin on Mar. 22, and Playa Del Puente responded with a career-best effort. Somehow disregarded at odds of 290-1, Playa Del Puente rated at the back of the pack early on before unleashing a ridiculous rally on the far turn, passing the entire field in the span of about 12 seconds while racing widest of all.

It was an extraordinary move, jaw-dropping in nature, and Playa Del Puente continued to defy logic by sustaining his run down the homestretch. Clear by nearly three lengths early in the lane, Playa Del Puente would have been an easy winner if not for the conservatively-ridden Golden Sixty, who produced a perfectly-timed rally to prevail by a neck and complete a sweep of Hong Kong's Triple Crown.

But Playa Del Puente deserves plenty of credit for sprinting the final two 400-meter sectionals in :22.83 and :22.67, which nearly carried him to the winner's circle. A repeat of this effort on Sunday will give Playa Del Puente a live chance to upset his older rivals and secure a signature Group 1 victory.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like this week?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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