12/06/2017 4:36PM

Hovdey: Few have cracked the Hong Kong code


Whether for flag and country or cold, hard cash, American owners and trainers keep trying to spread their wings aboard, sometimes to great success, more often to no avail.

The latest will be Stormy Liberal, the former claimer and Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner, owned by Gary Hartunian’s Rockingham Ranch and trained by Peter Miller. Stormy Liberal, who does his track work at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, is running Sunday in the $2.3 million Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin, going 1,200 meters around a right-hand turn on what should be firm ground. So good luck to him. He’ll need it.

To overcome the challenges of shipping, time change, climate, feed, medication rules, training environment, and – most importantly – the rising tide of worldwide competition, an American-trained racehorse must be truly exceptional. It doesn’t matter if they are traveling to Hong Kong, Ascot, Dubai, or Tokyo, they are always boarding the plane with a two-strike count.

That is why, for every satisfying international triumph by the likes of Arrogate, California Chrome, Tepin, or Lady Aurelia, there have been innumerable disappointments. Some U.S. runners have lost with heads held high – Kotashaan and Paradise Creek in Japan, The Tin Man and Whilly on the grass in Dubai – while others have come back the worse for wear, like Hall of Famers John Henry and Lava Man.

In 1996, the good sprinter Comininalittlehot succumbed to pneumonia on a trip to Hong Kong. Cal-bred Big Jag went to Dubai in 2001 to defend his Golden Shaheen title, but broke down training, suffered post-op laminitis, and was euthanized. In 2005, the fine turf runner Star Over the Bay suffered a fatal injury in Singapore.

As far as the Hong Kong International races are concerned, there is at least a respectable history of American participation. The two winners – Glen Kate and Val’s Prince – are complemented by second- or third-place performances from Morluc, Charmonnier, Stark South, Big Jag, Finder’s Fortune, and Ventiquattrofogli, who came within three-quarters of a length of taking the 1995 Hong Kong Cup for trainer Wally Dollase and jockey Paul Atkinson.

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Hong Kong’s budding international festival scheduled for December 1992 was called off due to an outbreak of equine influenza. There was a racing shutdown for more than a month before anyone could even think about rescheduling the events.

The delay gave the Southern California-trained mare Glen Kate a little more time to polish a game that already was good enough to beat the boys in the 1992 Laurel Dash. The Irish-bred daughter of Glenstal added the Monrovia and Las Cienegas handicaps at Santa Anita during the winter, which helped make her more than ready when the Hong Kong festival was revived for Sunday, April 18, 1993.

Glen Kate was running in the Hong Kong Bowl, a 1,400-meter event that no longer exists. In 1999, when the festival was expanded, the Bowl disappeared and was replaced by the Hong Kong Mile and the Hong Kong Sprint.

“That was the question for her – the seven furlongs,” said Corey Black, Glen Kate’s rider. “She’d been winning down the hill at Santa Anita going about 6 1/2 furlongs, and she had been beating some very good mares, like Bel’s Starlet and Heart of Joy. We knew she had the class and speed, so it was just a matter of getting the trip.”

Black, now retired, was the nation’s leading apprentice in purses won in 1986 while based in California. The East’s Allen Stacy, who led in winners, got the apprentice Eclipse Award. Black went on to ride a number of stakes winners for trainers like Charlie Whittingham, Eddie Gregson, John Gosden, and Jay Robbins, and even tossed in a couple of seasons riding under contract in France.

Glen Kate was trained by Bill Shoemaker, who by then was confined to a wheelchair after a 1991 car wreck rendered him a quadriplegic. She carried the Summa Stable colors of Bruce McNall, owner of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, who brought superstar Wayne Gretzky along for part of the ownership fun.

On April 18, Gretzky and McNall were otherwise occupied with the first game of the NHL playoffs against the Calgary Flames (Kings won, 6-3). Shoemaker was not yet able to travel from his Southern California base, and his assistant, Paddy Gallagher, was at Oaklawn Park that weekend, running the stable’s Diazo in the Arkansas Derby. (Diazo missed the break and ran fifth.)

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It fell to trainer and Gallagher running mate Andrew “Bull” McKeever to ably deputize in Hong Kong. Glen Kate drew the rail for the Bowl, worth about $450,000, and was sitting at a juicy 25-1 in the tote, compared to the French favorite, Helene Star, trained by Patrick Biancone.

“We couldn’t believe the price,” Black said. “She’d won her last three races in Grade 3 company and already beat males.”

Glen Kate broke a half-step slow, but Black was ready and moved her smoothly to the lead. They cornered clockwise like old pros – “Well, I had ridden in France,” Black said – and reached the top of the long Sha Tin stretch a length in front and sitting chilly. Black kicked for home at the 300-meter mark and opened daylight.

“I knew they’d be coming” Black said. “The seven furlongs was getting to her. But she was a very tough mare, and we just got there.”

Got there by a short head, over Helene Star.