12/11/2015 2:20PM

Hovdey: Americans look to prove strength on international stage


The record of American horses in international events leaves something to be desired. This can be explained away, depending on your point of view, as an endorsement of the U.S. racing circuit as rewarding enough to satisfy the temptations of widespread wanderlust or as an indictment of the U.S. racehorse as frail, drug-addled, and incapable of running on anything other than a monotonous dirt oval. As with American politics, there is no middle ground.

On the face of it, however, the record is grim. For instance:

The racing rulers of Dubai were so alarmed at Well Armed’s 14-length victory in the 2009 World Cup that they immediately closed up shop at Nad al Sheba and reopened across the street at Meydan with a synthetic surface. Not really. But since then, the race once dominated by Americans, who won five of the first 10, has been won only by Animal Kingdom in 2013.

It has been 24 years since an American-trained horse won the Japan Cup. Or for those who prefer their sake masu half-full, American horses won four of the first 11 runnings of the Japan Cup between 1981 and 1991, then stepped aside to give the rest of the world a chance. Golden Pheasant was that last American winner, owned by Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky, trained by Charlie Whittingham, and ridden by Gary Stevens.

The Japan Cup Dirt – now known as the Champions Cup – was created in 2000 as a sort of consolation prize to lure Americans long frustrated by failure in the traditional Japan Cup. No one has been fooled, although a few have tried. In fact, Fleetstreet Dancer, no better than an ambitious Grade 3 horse in California, overcame a sloppy course to win the Dirt in the mud in 2003 for trainer Doug O’Neill.

On Sunday afternoon – better known as Saturday night in the Western Hemisphere – the Americans will get another chance to strut on the world stage when the Hong Kong International races are presented at Sha Tin Racecourse.

The leading American contender is Mongolian Saturday, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Keeneland, who will be running in the Hong Kong Sprint at 1,200 meters, just shy of six furlongs. The purse computes to around $2.4 million.

Green Mask also is in the Sprint field for Wesley Ward, who has been on a one-man campaign to resurrect the international status of American-based runners. Green Mask was third to Mongolian Saturday in the BC Turf Sprint, but the last time we saw him here in California, he was working the “wrong” way on the Del Mar turf course to get ready for the right-to-left Sha Tin course. Reports of a bruised foot were not encouraging.

The other three races on the international program are bereft of American runners but chock full of intrigue. The Hong Kong Vase, at 2,400 meters for about $2 million, has lured 9-year-old Cirrus des Aigles – the French John Henry – for his sixth attempt to win one of the international events. If he beats Flintshire, the place will go nuts.

Ireland’s Free Eagle is the poster boy for the Hong Kong Cup, run at 2,000 meters for about $3.3 million. His fans still are bemoaning the fact that Golden Horn was not spanked for bothering him in the Irish Champion, but Free Eagle did win the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot, so he’s got that going for him. As for the Mile, local hero Able Friend returns to defend against Mondialiste, the Woodbine Mile winner last seen chasing Tepin home in the BC Mile.

Located on the banks of the Shing Mun River, due north of the island of Hong Kong and about halfway to what used to be called the frontier bordering mainland China, Sha Tin is one of those places that cannot be taken in with even one sweeping view. Of the many impressive features, none has stayed with me longer than the response to my question, “What’s all that beautiful landscaping in the infield?” The answer: a public recreational area, all 20 acres, called Penfold Park.

There was no Sprint in 1996, but I did get to see Australia’s Monopolize defend his title in the Hong Kong Bowl at seven furlongs (later reshaped into the Mile), and First Island, trained by Geoff Wragg, become the first European-trained horse win one of the Hong Kong events in the Cup. Clive Brittain, already an internationalist of note with horses like Pebbles and Bold Arrangement, won the Vase with his durable stayer Luso, and Frankie Dettori, in fine form, stumbled on the landing of his flying dismount.

Had I returned in 1997, I would have witnessed the last American-trained horse to win a Hong Kong International event. That would be Val’s Prince, trained by Jimmy Picou, who got up in the last stride under a cool Cash Asmussen to win a thrilling rendition of the Cup. Before that, the only other American to win in Hong Kong was Glen Kate, trained by Bill Shoemaker and his assistant Paddy Gallagher, who won the 1992 running of the Bowl. Again, the owners were Gretzky and McNall.

Should Mongolian Saturday win the Sprint, the flags flying highest will not be the stars and stripes, but the vibrant blue and red of Mongolia for owner Ganbaatar Dagvadorj and trainer Enebish Ganbat, with a little tricolor mixed in from French jockey Florent Geroux. But you know what? We’ll take it anyway.