Zeffiro saves face for Japan with 2nd in HK Vase

Namur, Hishi Iguazu finish third in Mile, Cup.

ZEFFIRO was placed 2<span style='color: inherit; font-size: 1em;'>nd in the Hong Kong Vase.</span>
ZEFFIRO was placed 2nd in the Hong Kong Vase. Picture: The Hong Kong Jockey Club

Expectations were high this past Sunday, as once again Japan's horsemen sent a huge team to Sha Tin to take on the Dec. 10 Hong Kong International Races (HKIR), a gala that currently boasts four Grade 1 competitions in one very-busy afternoon.

A total of 44 runners participated in the event, and with fewer and fewer hopefuls making the trip from Europe, Japan's 13 runners were an especially ominous presence compared to the only four horses from Ireland, three from France and one each from the U.K. and Singapore

Japan's previous participation in the HKIR has brought four wins of the Vase, three of the Sprint, five Mile victories and eight Cup victories. But, at the end of what turned out to be a fair-weather day despite an earlier forecast of rain, there was no sunshine for Japan. None of its 13 scored a win, though three - ZeffiroNamur and Hishi Iguazu -- did finish in the top three. The money stayed largely at home, the final score HK 3, France 1.

That said, a different success was to be had back in Japan, where wagering was available on all four races and brought the Japan Racing Association close to 4.9 billion yen in turnover, a mere 4.7 percent drop from last year's record amount.

First up with a 3:10 p.m. post time (Japan time) was the day's No. 4 race, the Hong Kong Vase, 2,400 meters over the right-handed turf course with a total pot of $HK24 million and a first-place prize of $HK 13.44 million. Japan's Win Marilyn captured the Vase last year, and the year before that Glory Vase won his second Vase (the first in 2019). This year, three horses from Japan were participating - 2022 Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup champion Geraldina, three-time G2 winner Zeffiro, and G2 winner Lebensstil.

It was France that prevailed, with Maxime Guyon piloting the winner Junko, an Andre Fabre-trained 4-year-old gelding by Intello. After a slow pace in the early stages, Junko displayed an amazing turn of foot, to win by a length over Japan's Zeffiro. The 3-year-old filly Warm Heart (second pick in betting in Japan), though in the lead with 3 furlongs to go, was no match for Junko despite a 4-kg advantage and faded to finish in third. Japan's Geraldina crossed the line half a length later in fourth. It was the third win HKIR victory (all in the Vase) for Farbre, who had just celebrated his 78th birthday the day before. Farbre won with Borgia in 1999 and Flintshire in 2014.

Runnerup Zeffiro, a 4-year-old colt by Deep Impact, received high praise from partner Damian Lane, who exclaimed, "He had a fabulous run! Zeffiro's three G2 runs in Japan included his most recent win of the Copa Republica Argentina, and a fourth in the Meguro Kinen, (both grueling tests over the Tokyo 2,500) as well as a third in the Sankei Sho All Comers over the Nakayama 2,200.

"We'd been able to prepare for the race in very nice surroundings," said trainer Yasutoshi Ikee of the Sha Tin facilities. "And the race went pretty much as I had expected it would. The jockey knows him well and the horse made a very good effort." Ikee praised winner Junko. "He really held his ground well."

The 5-year-old Geraldina, by Maurice (whose wins included the 2015 Hong Kong Mile and the Champions Mile at Sha Tin 5 months later) raced under William Buick, who commended the mare saying, "She really ran well, but the pace was slow and didn't suit her. Still, her fourth was a solid placing and she earned it."

Trainer Takashi Saito also expressed his satisfaction. "I think we got the race we wanted and her effort in the stretch was fantastic. I think she was able to run her own race."

The highly touted Lebensstil, the race favorite in Japan, finished a surprising last. Keen in the early stages, the 3-year-old colt (racing under 2 kg less than the winner) had nothing to give Joao Moreira in the end, finishing last of the eight runners.

Blaming himself, trainer Hiroyasu Tanaka expressed his remorse at the poor results. "I was of the opinion there were no problems with the horse's condition but it looks like my judgment was poor, for which I apologize." Moreira, who had ridden the Real Steel-sired Lebensstil to victory in his most recent start and first Grade 2 win (the 2,200-meter St. Lite Kinen at Nakayama on Sept. 18), was blunt. "He wasn't able to show his ability at all. He was a completely different horse from his last race."

Next was the 1,200-meter Hong Kong Sprint, with a total purse of $HK26 million and a 3:50 p.m. post time. Two runners were fielded by Japanese trainers - this year's Grade 1 Sprinters Stakes runnerup Mad Cool and Grade 3 winner Jasper Krone, fourth in the Oct. 1 Sprinters Stakes and just back from a disappointing run in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.

Long a stronghold of the local best speedsters, the Hong Kong Sprint stayed at home this year, with local runners sweeping the top five spots.

The 5-year-old gelding, and sixth-place finisher in last year's Sprint, Lucky Sweynesse took the lead with 100 meters to go and stayed, winning under Zac Purton. With the victory, the Manfred Man-trained Lucky Sweynesse (by Sweynesse) became the first horse to sweep all four of Hong Kong's top-level sprints in the same year.

Lucky With You (Andrea Atzeni up) and Wellington (Alexis Badel riding) crossed the line next, each about a length apart.

Japan's pair were far back, with Jasper Krone (an American-bred 4-year-old) in seventh, the Irish-bred 4-year-old Mad Cool finishing eighth in the field of 10.

Jasper Krone (the sixth choice in Japan) had taken the lead from the gate. Trainer Hideyuki Mori commented, "He was able to run his own race and he was moving well, but the others closing in on him were moving even better. Considering his present condition, I'd say he really made a good effort and I'm hoping he'll do better in his next start." Yuga Kawada, whose only previous ride aboard Jasper Krone was his BC bid, agreed with Mori, "He ran his own race and really put in a good effort."

Manabu Ikezoe. trainer of Mad Cool (the second pick in Japan), blamed the fast pace for the poor showing. "He started as he usually does, but those around him were really moving and the rider had to get after him from early on. He wasn't able to keep anything in reserve for the final stage and I think the jockey also didn't want to push him excessively either. The horse was in good condition with no troubles at all. The results are unfortunate but it was a good experience for him."

Cristian Demuro, paired with Mad Cool for his first time, also mentioned the pace. "The pace was fast and it was a difficult race for him. He also prefers a somewhat heavier track."

At 5 p.m., Japan weighed in heavy with five runners in the $HK32-million Hong Kong Mile - this year's Grade 1 Mile Championship winner Namur, Mile Championship runnerup Soul Rush, 2022 Mile Championship winner and this year's Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen runnerup Serifos, runnerup in last year's Hong Kong Cup Danon the Kid, and Grade 2 winner Divina.

But, it was the legendary Golden Sixty who electrified the hometown stands and crushed the competition with an incredible stretch drive from midfield that put him over the line a length and a half ahead of the other 13. Hong Kong's Voyage Bubble, who had also raced from a midfield position, was second and Namur scored for Japan with a late drive that rocketed her to a third-place finish. Soul Rush gained swiftly down the straight to score fourth place a quarter length behind Namur.

Tomokazu Takano, who trains the 4-year-old filly Namur, said, "She ran with everything she had in the straight. I was aiming to win, so I can't say I'm satisfied with third place, but I do think she showed us everything she was capable of."

Rider William Buick was a bit more generous with the praise. "It was a stupendous run. She broke from the No. 12 gate, but her late speed was outstanding today. Her maneuvering under way wasn't bad at all. I'd have to say she's turned into something of a super filly."

Of the 5-year-old Rulership-sired Soul Rush, trainer Yasutoshi Ikee said, "His start wasn't the best and he couldn't make up the ground, which put him further back than we'd hoped for. The jockey said he got bumped about five times turning for home, upsetting his balance, and Namur got ahead of him. The winner was strong, but without the interference I think we might have been able to make second." Rider Joao Moreira said, "He did a great job. Unfortunately, it wasn't a perfect run and things didn't go smoothly, but he's a very strong horse and I am extremely proud of him."

The 4-year-old Serifos finished in seventh place. Rider Yuga Kawada said, "He felt really good in the preliminaries before the race, just as he had felt in his final fast work. He was able to run his own race and was feeling good turning into the stretch. I thought he might just do it, but he wasn't able to gain ground." Trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida praised the horse's effort and added, "I'm wondering if the different type of grass at Sha Tin may have affected his ability to gain ground in the final stage."

Divina, a 5-year-old Maurice mare, finished 11th. "I'm satisfied that she was able to run safely," said trainer Yasuo Tomomichi. "Like others of her bloodline, she was calm and laidback after arriving in Hong Kong and I had thought she might be suited to the overseas outing." Rider Cristian Demuro said, "It was a tough race for her."

Yuichi Kitamura, the only Japan-based jockey other than Kawada participating at Sha Tin on Sunday, brought Danon the Kid (whom Golden Sixty had found cover behind) over the line in 12th place, only two off the rear. "He ran nicely balanced, and maybe it was due to the tough track condition and not being able to get cover, but he wasn't able to gain ground. I'm very grateful to the stable staff and connections for giving me this opportunity to ride in Hong Kong. I'd like to use this experience to aid my own growth as a jockey."

The big four wrapped up at 5:45 p.m. (Japan time) with the day's richest race, the 2,000-meter Hong Kong Cup, with $HK36 million on the line and over $HK20 million for the winner. Eleven runners participated, including three from Japan - Hishi Iguazu, second here in 2021 and second in the 2022 Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen, Prognosis, second in Hong Kong's QE2 this spring and third in the recent Tenno Sho (Autumn), and Rousham Park, a Harbinger colt sliding in to Sha Tin on a three-race winning streak that included two graded-stake tests.

Once again it was the home team that prevailed, but not by much. Hong Kong's 2023 QE2 champion Romantic Warrior, who had just captured the Cox Plate a mere 6 weeks earlier, triumphed by a short head over Ireland's Luxembourg, with Hishi Iguazu in third by a neck. The three had all traveled handily and Hishi Iguazu (sixth pick in Japan), with a fierce concentration belying his 7 years, managed to gain ground despite getting bumped just before the goal, and nearly caught the front two. "It was a fantastic run and it was a shame that he had a bit of interference in the stretch," said Moreira of the Heart's Cry-sired Hishi Iguazu.

Prognosis, who had run from the rear of the field, made the board under Yuga Kawada. "He felt good in the pre-race warmup, much as he had before the Tenno Sho (Autumn), so I had felt he might do well. He did get tense at some points under way but he remained patient. In the end I think his finish was even more frustrating than the margin would indicate. I really had wanted him to get better results. He really tried hard." Trainer Mitsumasa Nakauchida agreed, "He ran his heart out and it was so close and so very frustrating."

Slow away, Rousham Park traveled just fore of Prognosis, but only managed to finish in eighth place, with three runners following. "He wasn't able to break well, but he did travel nicely, so considering where he finished, I'd have to say that he mustn't have been in as good a condition as I had thought," said trainer Hiroyasu Tanaka. Damian Lane agreed that the slow start was unfortunate. "Our position was too far back."

Japan Racing Association