HK Cup: Eagle aims to topple Rome

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

December 12th, 2015

The talented but fragile Free Eagle had a choice of spots for his career finale, so it’s worth noting that trainer Dermot Weld has zeroed in on Sunday’s Hong Kong Cup (G1) as his best shot for a grand send-off. That’s not to say it’s easy: the climax of the International Races at 3:30 a.m. (EST), the Cup features a robust home defense spearheaded by last year’s winner Designs on Rome and a Japanese team captained by Nuovo Record.

Free Eagle promised a lot when crushing his debut at Leopardstown two years ago, but he looked lackluster when a distant second to a colt named Australia next time. Unfortunately, Free Eagle exited that race with an injury. The son of High Chaparral was off for a year, missing his chance at the European classics. After a brilliant comeback victory in the 2014 Kilternan (aka Enterprise) (G3), he was unlucky to encounter a bog in Ascot’s Champion S. (G1), but soldiered on bravely for third to Noble Mission and Al Kazeem.

Thoughts of making up for lost time in 2015 were dashed early on, thanks to an illness that forced him out of his intended reappearance. Weld had to call upon all of his horsemanship to have Free Eagle ready for the June 17 Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot. Ready is a relative term; he was fit to take his chance, but not as cranked as if he’d gotten his prep. Nevertheless, Free Eagle rose to the occasion, showing his customary courage, to last by a nose from The Grey Gatsby, with Cup foes Criterion (fifth) and Gailo Chop (eighth) in arrears.

Not seen again until the September 12 Irish Champion (G1), Free Eagle ranged up menacingly to challenge Golden Horn, only to get body-slammed by the star three-year-old. Free Eagle’s momentum was stopped cold, and he wound up third to Golden Horn (the next-out Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe [G1] winner) and Found (who gained revenge on Golden Horn in the Breeders’ Cup Turf [G1]). Free Eagle tried 1 1/2 miles for the one and only time in the Arc, but never picked up in sixth.

Back down to his best distance of about 1 1/4 miles here, Free Eagle will be fresh off the two-month break, and his form is world-class. If he performs up to his high standard, the Irish National Stud will have to crank out some new stallion ads for 2016.

Hong Kong has won the last four editions of the Cup, and the locals have a deep bench to extend it to five. Designs on Rome collared Military Attack in the 2014 running (right), in a duel between two Hong Kong Horses of the Year. Both are back on Sunday, but entering from different types of preps.

Designs on Rome has scored his four biggest wins over this course and distance, counting the 2014 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) and Hong Kong Derby as well as the March 1 Hong Kong Gold Cup. The John Moore charge didn’t run badly when fourth in both the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night and as the defending champion in the QEII, but he was later diagnosed with bone chips and underwent surgery on both front fetlocks. He resurfaced with a pleasing sixth in the November 21 Jockey Club Mile (G2), recording the fastest final quarter-mile (even better than star miler Able Friend). Designs on Rome is giving positive vibes ahead of his title defense. Still, as Moore himself admits, he would have been even better with a second prep – as he had last year. Even if not coming in according to textbook fashion, Designs on Rome should put up a good effort.

Military Attack, in contrast, comes off a victory in the course-and-distance prep, the November 21 Jockey Club Cup (G2) (pictured left). Although he’s a former Horse of the Year, who was spectacular in his day, I can’t escape the idea that everything went right for him last time. He capitalized on a five-pound weight concession from Blazing Speed, who’s entitled to turn the tables at level weights (and from a much better draw) here. Military Attack would have to produce one of his career bests to win this at the age of seven, after failing in his three prior attempts. As much as I’ve respected him over the years, it’s a big ask to win the prep and the main event.

Blazing Speed found that out last fall, having captured the Jockey Club Cup, only to trail home in the Hong Kong Cup and come up with an injury. This year, as jockey Neil Callan points out, trainer Tony Cruz left more room for improvement off the prep. Even a bit underdone, Blazing Speed ran a great race in defeat: despite enduring a wide trip and throwing a shoe, he was beaten only a head by Military Attack in the Jockey Club Cup. A peaking Blazing Speed commands respect: he’s landed majors from a mile (the 2014 Stewards’ Cup) to 1 1/2 miles (the 2014 Champions and Chater Cup), and the April 26 QEII over this trip, dismissing Staphanos, Criterion, Designs on Rome and Military Attack. The 2014 QEII proved to be the key race foreshadowing the Hong Kong Cup, and it could be so again.

Stablemate Beauty Only finished strongly for a close third in the Jockey Club Cup, in part supporting his claims of staying this distance. That had been in doubt, since his biggest win came in the Hong Kong Classic Mile, and he’d disappointed in the two subsequent legs of the Hong Kong Four-Year-Old Series. But a scruple remains because the pace scenario will be much more demanding than in the Jockey Club prep. Can Beauty Only rally as boldly off a stiff pace, or was he flattered by the sit-and-sprint 1 1/4 miles last time?

The pace will be generous thanks to Japan’s A Shin Hikari, a confirmed front runner who will go forward and see how long he can last. His eight-for-10 lifetime record includes a pair of wins at this trip versus lesser, but it’s a cause for pause that he flopped in his biggest test in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1). His presence will ensure a proper set-up for closers like Designs on Rome, and at the same time likely undercuts fellow pace factor Gailo Chop. Typically racing on or near the lead, Gailo Chop needed softish going in Australia to earn his first Group 1 title in the Mackinnon last out, and he’ll find this scenario less congenial.

The other Japanese runners stand to benefit from a strong pace. Nuovo Record (right), who beat Harp Star in last year’s Japanese Oaks (G1), defeated a solid cast of males in the March 1 Nakayama Kinen (G2) (including Cup rival Staphanos). Twice runner-up to recent Japan Cup (G1) heroine Shonan Pandora, Nuovo Record was also a neck second in Kyoto’s Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) for the second straight year. Her post 18 was a decided disadvantage last out, but she’s landed a plum post 2 here, and lured Ryan Moore into the saddle. She’s well qualified to add to the good record of females in this race.

Staphanos is better known for his august placings. Likely improved since his second to Blazing Speed here in April, he exits another runner-up effort in a loaded renewal of the Tenno Sho Autumn. Horses coming out of that race swept the trifecta in the Japan Cup, boosting Staphanos’ claims here. The lingering question is if he’s ready to win one of these, or a perennial bridesmaid.

You could say the same about Satono Aladdin, who’s just missed to A Shin Hikari and Danon Platina (see the Hong Kong Mile [G1]). But there is a significant difference: in the wake of his barnstorming fourth to Maurice in the Mile Championship (G1), Satono Aladdin could be crying out for added ground. He’d have a lot more longshot appeal if he hadn’t drawn the far outside post 14.

Admirable globetrotter Criterion has every right to improve off his thirds here in last year’s Cup (his debut for David Hayes) and QEII Cup (when wheeling back just 15 days after his lucrative Group 1 coup at Randwick). The four-time Australian Group 1 star comes off a productive Spring Carnival: outfinishing Highland Reel (see the Hong Kong Vase [G1]) when second in the Cox Plate (G1), he was a gallant third under a big weight in the two-mile Melbourne Cup (G1). This trip is much more in his comfort zone, and despite his crisscrossing the globe, Criterion’s still got the swagger to wow work-watchers.

Compatriot Lucia Valentina, although a two-time Group 1 winner at this distance in 2014, has a tougher task on form. She had to get class relief in the Matriarch (G2) to snap her losing skid, and the ground probably won’t be soft enough. Trainer Kris Lees, who has commented that she’s in tremendous shape, hopes that the strong pace will help her cause.

Free Port Lux is best suited by this trip on quicker going, as indicated by his victory in the Prix Dollar (G2) over Arc weekend. Yet his fifth to Dan Excel and Military Attack in the May 17 Singapore Airlines International Cup (G1) leaves something to prove. Dan Excel, for all of his back class, has been in poor form this fall.

Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club. is offering a special HKIR promotion: you can earn 20X Points for all of your wagers on the Hong Kong International Races this weekend!