HONG KONG Lemaire is a man in demand
HONG KONG – Hong Kong superstar jockey Joao Moreira, having failed to procure a longterm Japanese license this year, returns to the Hong Kong circuit on a regular basis next week. Moreira is in town for the Hong Kong International Races on Sunday but unsurprisingly is keeping a low profile this week.
In Moreira’s absence, Zac Purton has assumed leading role in the Hong Kong jockey colony, but Purton, following a Tuesday photo op and presser for the dozen jockeys (no Moreira) who are part of this year’s International Jockey Challenge, skipped out of the event as quickly as politely possible.
No worries, really, for it seemed everyone at Happy Valley Racecourse on Tuesday wanted to have a word with Christophe Lemaire.
Lemaire, 39, is in Hong Kong this week for the first time in five years. His position in the racing world is unique. A successful and established rider in France, Lemaire in 2014 applied for a long-term Japanese jockey’s license, passed the two required tests (Moreira failed the first one), and has become Japan’s top jockey. Less than a month from the end of the year he is closing in on the Japan Racing Association record of 212 winners in a year and will be leading rider for the second time. Lemaire had many good seasons in France but never, he said, did he win races at a pace like this.
“We used to come to Japan every winter,” Lemaire said during an endless string of interviews Tuesday. “We were used to the culture and the way of racing in Japan, and I can say that Japan for the jockeys is one of the best places in the world. It’s a great pleasure to ride there. The races are safe, there’s a lot of respect between the jockeys. The language is hard to handle but we work on it – still working on it.”
Lemaire can at least get by in four languages – and has mounts in all four Hong Kong International Races on Sunday. He rides Ivictory in the Hong Kong Sprint, Eziyra in the Hong Kong Vase, Mozu Ascot in the Hong Kong Mile, and the filly Deirdre in the Hong Kong Cup. All these horses have at least a hope, but it is Deirdre whom Lemaire calls his best chance to win.
Yet Lemaire could not go more than a few sentences without someone asking about a horse he rides who’s not even in Hong Kong – the 3-year-old filly Almond Eye.
Almond Eye became the fifth horse to sweep the Japan fillies triple crown and followed that with a superior performance beating older males in the Japan Cup on Nov. 25. It has not just been the races Almond Eye has won but the way Almond Eye has won her races that has captured the imagination. She swept to the filly triple crown blasting home from the rear of the field, but in the Japan Cup sat second just off Kiseki’s solid pace before tipping out and passing with ease.
“I felt that she was something special from her debut,” said Lemaire. “She’s got stamina, speed, acceleration – she’s easy to ride and she’s nearly a perfect horse to ride . . . She reaches so far with her front legs and pushes so hard with her back – if you look at her you can see she has such a powerful engine. When she goes, she goes so hard.”
Lemaire confirmed Almond Eye’s connections have their eye on the Sheema Classic on the Dubai World Cup undercard. That’s for the spring. In the autumn, the obvious goal is to become the first Japanese winner of the elusive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Funny that the French expatriate who has become a top Japanese jock could be the one to produce it.
Reading the tea leaves in Vase
The trainer Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore have a horse for Sunday’s Hong Kong Vase named Rostropovich. The jockey Ryan Moore is in Hong Kong this week and rides the Sunday card at Sha Tin. Moore is the principal rider for O’Brien and Ballydoyle, and one year ago gave those connections their first Hong Kong win when Highland Reel captured the Vase.
Moore is not riding Rostropovich in the Vase. That’s the mount of Wayne Lordan, while Moore will take a seat on Mirage Dancer for an old patron, trainer Michael Stoute.
Undertaking the study of jockeyology can lead one down a rabbit hole, but it feels like there’s meaning in this move.
Four-year-old Mirage Dancer has three wins from his 11 starts and never has been worse than fifth, but he also has never even competed above the Group 2 level. He has, however, hinted at highlevel ability, and no horse in Hong Kong this weekend has a better pedigree than Mirage Dancer, who is by Frankel and out of the top-class turf racemare Heat Haze. Moore has ridden Mirage Dancer in his last three starts and hopes the best is yet to come from the colt – preferably Sunday.
“He’s a horse we’ve always liked. He just wasn’t physically ready as a 3-year-old,” Moore said Tuesday. “He’s the sort of horse Michael does really, really well with. He’s just had to be patient with him.”
The 2,400-meter (about 1 ½-mile) Vase had standout performers last year in Highland Reel and Talismanic, who finished second. This edition brings a much different dynamic. Waldgeist could be a tepid favorite after a season in which he was the leading older horse in France, but there is nothing especially formidable about Waldgeist on Sunday. The Vase should be open to an improving younger horse, a horse like Rostropovich – or Mirage Dancer.
Werther out of Hong Kong Cup
Werther, a former Hong Kong Horse of the Year, was withdrawn Wednesday from the Hong Kong Cup because of an enlarged suspensory ligament. The withdrawal was made official in a release from the Hong Kong Jockey Club late Wednesday afternoon.
Trainer John Moore said earlier Wednesday that he believed Werther first sustained the injury during the running of the Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen on June 18 at Hanshin Racecourse in Japan.
Werther, a New Zealandbred who is a 7-year-old on Northern Hemisphere time, was a two-time Group 1 winner during the 20162017 Hong Kong season and finished second a year ago in the Hong Kong Cup. More recently he was third in the BOCHK Jockey Club Stakes, his intended prep for Sunday’s race.
De Sousa wins jockey challenge
Silvestre de Sousa won Wednesday night’s International Jockey Challenge over 11 other riders by landing two winners and putting up points in all four races that were part of the sequence.
De Sousa finished second in the opening leg, won the second leg, was third in third leg, and wrapped up his $64,000 share of a $102,400 total purse by winning again in the last leg, race 8 on the Happy Valley card. Points were awarded 12-6-4 for top three finishes and de Sousa totaled 34.
The Irish jockey Colin Keane won the first race in the series and wound up second to de Sousa with 16 points. American-based Javier Castellano had a pair of seconds and finished fourth.