“There are no fewer than 12 conferences and meetings held throughout the week with racing industry professionals,” Kelly said. “The second week in December in Hong Kong is firmly on the calendar for everyone in the sport, and it is, annually, the biggest international sporting event held in Hong Kong.”
Although now ensconced as a key race meet, things were different when the event made its debut. In January 1988, Hong Kong offered up its first ever international race, the Hong Kong Invitation Cup. The initial running was only also open to overseas runners from Malaysia and Singapore, but by 1993 the race, which was renamed the Hong Kong Cup, was opened to everyone.
In the ensuing decades, horses from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Macau, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have all made their way to Hong Kong, as the international day of racing grew from a single race to the four it is now.
“We always seek to attract the best horses in the world to take on Hong Kong’s finest, and it is a never-ending challenge to maintain the incredible heights the event has reached year after year,” Kelly said. “Hong Kong International Races day is one of the most international days of racing annually. The form from all of the world’s major race meetings over the previous year converges on one day.”
The quartet of races was chosen specifically for the distances they cover. The Hong Kong Cup, still considered the main attraction, is held over 2,000 meters (about 1.25 miles), while the Mile is self-explanatory, the Sprint is 1,200 meters and the Vase is 2,400 meters.
“There is no doubt that our goal is to hold four championship races at the prime distances on grass,” said Kelly. “The Hong Kong Cup, Mile and Sprint are the richest Group 1 races in the world at their distances on grass, and the Vase routinely draws some of the world’s top 2,400-meter talents year after year.
“We have a limited horse population in Hong Kong and must focus our racing program on select distances. The vast majority of our races are between 1,000 to 1,800 meters, with a smaller number of races, though many of our most prestigious, at 2,000 meters. We have just three races annually at 2,400 meters, and all three are at group level, including the Vase.”
Highland Reel’s first trip to Hong Kong came in 2015, and it proved to be an important one. He became the first 3-year-old to win the Vase, and he gave his renowned trainer, Aidan O’Brien, his first victory in Hong Kong. The colt came back in 2016, but finished second by half a length.
In his final race, Highland Reel’s main foe is expected to be Talismanic, a fellow European who was the upset winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf in November at Del Mar. Highland Reel finished the race in third place, three quarters of length behind Talismanic.
“International racing needs globe-trotting superstars like Highland Reel,” Kelly said. “It’s so healthy for the sport when its best stars go overseas, and Highland Reel is a perfect example of that. He will lead a record group of five runners from Aidan O’Brien’s yard to make the trip to Hong Kong, so we are particularly excited about that.
“The Vase is more of a specialty distance amongst our horses, but we welcome some of the world’s best at that trip each year and give it a chance. The Vase has been won by overseas contenders in 21 of its 23 runnings.”
A total of 29 overseas runners are expected to compete in the Hong Kong International Races on Sunday, but those aiming for one of the other contests historically have had a harder time defeating the local contingent than those going in the Vase.
“Hong Kong’s sprinters and milers are amongst the world’s finest each year,” Kelly said. “Beauty Only will have a chance to repeat in the Mile for Hong Kong, and our emerging stars Mr Stunning and Lucky Bubbles seek to retain the Sprint for the home team.”
In the Cup itself, Werther, a former Hong Kong Horse of the Year, will likely have the crowd’s support. Unsurprisingly, the fan base in Hong Kong appreciates foreign competition, but still prefers to see local horses take on the best in the world and win.
“Hong Kong’s racing fans are incredibly loyal to the home team, but we simulcast 23 international race meetings each year,” Kelly said. “Our fans do get to know some of the world superstars of racing, and they appreciate some the great horses of the turf that have visited Hong Kong over the years.
“Highland Reel is certainly well known to them with this being his third consecutive appearance in the Vase. Japan’s Maurice became only the second horse to win two Hong Kong International Races when taking the Cup last year and the Mile the year before, and he added a Champions Mile in between.”
While things can always change, Kelly said the Hong Kong Jockey Club is content with the event staying at four races. The club does, however, remain passionate about enticing foreign runners to its foremost day of racing.
“Our team is constantly in touch with overseas connections at all of the major race meetings around the world,” he said. “We do offer significant travel incentives, covering the horse transportation costs for selected runners and their primary connections for the Hong Kong International Races, which eliminates a significant hurdle.
“Hong Kong racing is now more popular than ever and distributed across five continents through commingling, enabling the rest of the world to regularly watch and bet on our races, and that also makes it easier. Hong Kong racing isn’t something you see just once a year now.”