12/12/2009 12:00AM

California Flag has work cut out

Hong Kong Jockey Club
Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner California Flag is expected to gun for the lead against a star-studded cast in Sunday's $1.5 million Hong Kong Sprint.

California Flag puts his glittering four-race winning streak on the line in faraway Hong Kong on Sunday when he finds himself smack in the middle of the most competitive sprint race - on turf, dirt or synthetics - anywhere in the world this year.

The $1.5 million Hong Kong Sprint at six furlongs on turf has attracted nine Group 1 winners who have won a total of 21 Group 1 races. Oddly, California Flag, who is coming off a front-running score in the ungraded $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, is not one of them. Neither is Cannonball, third in the Turf Sprint. The two Americans, however, are very much in the mix in a contest that for all intents and purposes is too close to call.

Joe Talamo will surely gun for the lead on the speedy California Flag from his perfect 4 post. From there it is simply a matter of hoping they can hold off the cavalry charge.

"He's been great this week," said trainer Brian Koriner. "He's not tucked up, which is really a good sign. Everybody expects he might go too hard on the front end, but he can come back to the rider. He's just a naturally fast horse."

One knock against California Flag - a California-bred son of Avenue of Flags - is that he has never ventured outside of Southern California for any of his 16 starts. That is not the case with Cannonball, who has raced all over America and narrowly missed winning a Group 1 when he was a fast-closing second in the six-furlong Golden Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. That experience should stand the Wesley Ward trainee in good stead. It will be up to Ramon Dominguez to work out a closing trip from the rail.

Sacred Kingdom will receive strong backing from his legion of fans in the huge Sha Tin grandstand. The 2 1/2-length winner of this race in 2007, the Ricky Yiu-trained 6-year-old is 6 for 8 lifetime over the course and distance. He prepped with a two-length second in the Group 2 International Sprint Trial off a five-month layoff while spotting the winner five pounds and will certainly improve for having had that effort.

A trio of very dangerous Australians may hold the key to the race. All Silent could be the best of them. A lightly raced 6-year-old son of Belong to Me, he won a six-furlong Group 2 two back and then won Flemington's six-furlong, Group 1 Patinack Farm Classic, in which he beat eight-time Group 1 winner Apache Cat by 1 1/2 lengths into fourth. A Lion Cavern 7-year-old, Apache Cat would be no surprise himself, especially with big-race specialist Damien Oliver in the saddle.

Scenic Blast is Australia's reigning Horse of the Year. He beat Cannonball into sixth place when he came from far out of it to win the five-furlong, Group 1 King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. He has been unplaced in two efforts since, however, most recently when he was 16th and last in Nakayama's Grade 1 Sprinters Stakes behind Laurel Guerreiro, who is expected to challenge California Flag for the early lead on Sunday.

A pair of Group 1-winning Europeans would probably have to improve if they are to get the better of their speedier foreign rivals. Total Galley used tracking speed to win the five-furlong, Group 1 Prix de l'Abbaye de Longchamp, while Borderlescott, sixth in the Abbaye, is the two-time winner of York's similarly conditioned Nunthorpe Stakes. But European sprinters have a poor record in Hong Kong, where they are usually run off their feet.