The Hong Kong Jockey Club have built their spring meeting into a major international event, but this year due to the pandemic there were no international runners, no international jockeys, owners and media at Sha Tin.
The meeting was run solely with home runners and without the usual crowds who flock to Sha Tin to watch the world’s elite in action.
All this did not prevent racing at the highest level with all the appropriate drama of a meeting of this standard.
Southern Legend beat Beauty Generation by a head bob in the HK$20m, Group 1 FWD Champions Mile (1600m) after a dramatic duel in the main straight, potentially costing Beauty Generation at chance at a third straight Hong Kong Horse of the Year title in what may or may not have been his swan song.
At the start of the straight it looked for all the world that Beauty Generation had regained his mojo as he surged to the lead and headed for the finish. But rider Vincent Ho on Southern Legend was in hot pursuit. They challenged with 200 meters to run and just did get the victory by the narrowest of noses. Waikuku, who had finished in front of Beauty Generation four times this season, was third.
The Champions Mile, after starting at a leisurely pace, quickened as the sectionals went by and Southern Legend, who entered in this race in lieu of attempting his third straight Kranji Mile in Singapore next month, finished in a good time of 1:33.13.
"The boss (trainer Caspar Fownes) had prepared him for Singapore so I always felt he would pick up really well," Ho said. "Last run, he ran really well, so I thought I could get close to Beauty Generation.”
Beauty Generation's trainer, John Moore, whose Hong Kong career hits a mandatory stop at age 70 after this season, plans to resume training in in Australia and said he would be happy to have his seven-year-old star along if the owners, the Kwok family, agree.
"I would like to take him back for a mile race in Australia and then have him stay there at the Living Legends Farm," Moore said of the Road to Rock gelding. "That is what I would like to do but what the Kwok family wants to do is what counts. I don't know whether they will keep racing him or retire him."
In the HK$15m, Group 1 FWD QE II Cup (2000m) Exultant may have benefitted most from the absence of foreign competition as he did not need his best form to produce a workmanlike win against local rivals.
Jockey Zac Purton put the six-year-old Teofilo gelding into the race midway down the back straight as stablemate Time Warp was out in the lead. In their last race Exultant gave Time Warp too much rope and Purton was determined not to repeat that mistake. The tactic worked as Time Warp began to fade midway down the stretch, leaving Exultant on the lead. Exultant had sufficient to win by 3/4 length over Furore, winner of the 2019 BMW Hong Kong Derby. Time Warp faded to finish fifth.
The win made Purton the only rider ever to score in all of Hong Kong's Grade 1 events but he said it was no sure thing.
"My fella, at the 300-meter mark, was just starting to struggle a little bit," Purton said. "Down to the 200, I knew there was a horse coming and I could sense my bloke was at his bottom. He didn't have anything else, so I was certainly worried. But my guy, he just kept galloping along and did enough."
Trainer Tony Cruz saddled both Exultant and Furore and said both will go on to the final Group 1 event of the Hong Kong season, the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup at 2,400 meters on May 24th.
The HK$18m, Group 1 FWD Chairman's Sprint Prize (1200m) produced the day's biggest upset as Mr Stunning got through a hole between rivals to win by 3/4 length over fellow long shot Big Time Baby. Thanks Forever was third with the favourites, Aethero and Hot King Prawn, further back.
Hot King Prawn was fourth in a tightly bunched race to the finish. But Aethero, after leading through much of the 1,200 meters, stopped badly and was eased home. He later was found to have bled.
Mr Stunning, a seven-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding, was scratched from last season's Chairman's Sprint Prize with a hairline fracture of his hip and trainer Frankie Lor has been careful with him ever since.
"Because of the hairline fracture he had, I can't push him too hard, especially as he is an older horse," Lor said. "That's why this time I did not trial him before this race. We just freshened him up.
"We planned this to be his last run but let me talk to the owner and we will decide and see what he thinks about the horse. I am very happy for him," Lor said.