12/07/2017 4:00PM

Talismanic vs. Highland Reel in Hong Kong Vase

Susie Raisher
Talismanic and jockey Mickael Barzalona win the Breeders' Cup Turf.

HONG KONG – The week of the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, Talismanic, a horse few Americans had heard of, much less seen, became famous for his looks. The BC Turf longshot has a thick slab of white pitched down the center of his face and bright socks pulled up over his knees. He looks more like a paint horse at a Texas rodeo than a French import from the legendary training yard of Andre Fabre.

The crazy-looking creature can run. He ran down Beach Patrol and Highland Reel to win the BC Turf, and he has been strutting around Sha Tin Racecourse this week like he means to become the first horse to pull the BC Turf–Hong Kong Vase double.

Talismanic is one of 12 set to contest the Vase, a 2,400-meter race (about 1 1/2 miles) worth about $2.3 million. The Vase is the first of four Group 1’s on Sunday at Sha Tin and traditionally is the weak sibling of the quartet. Folks this year are citing it as the best race on the card, but that’s mainly because they see Talismanic and Highland Reel atop the field.

That pair stands clearly above the rest, and it will be surprising if one of them doesn’t come home a winner a little after 2 p.m. local time Sunday, which is 1 a.m. Eastern. Following the Vase comes the Hong Kong Sprint (race 5), the Hong Kong Mile (race 7), and the Hong Kong Cup (race 8, 3:30 a.m.). The Hong Kong Jockey Club has pockets deep enough that it just might have paid for perfect weather: Race day is supposed to be sunny, with a high of 71.

The Sha Tin turf course is very firm and lively this week. Several horses blowing out Thursday morning got their final furlong in just more than 11 seconds. Fast ground is good news for Talismanic, a 4-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro owned by Godolphin. Talismanic has made five starts on firm turf and won four of them, his lone loss a no-show in the 2016 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

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In the BC Turf, Talismanic broke from the rail, the same post he has for the Vase, and showed good tactical speed racing from fifth while sticking inside and behind Highland Reel. He and jockey Mickael Barzalona found room at the top of the Del Mar stretch and mowed down Highland Reel and Beach Patrol for Talismanic’s first Grade 1 win.

Highland Reel, who goes to stud following this race, has won six Grade 1 or Group 1’s, including the 2015 Vase. He was second here last year, done in by a speed duel, but in the BC Turf, Highland Reel wasn’t even on the lead, settled inside behind Oscar Performance, who went a quick 23.69-second first quarter-mile.

“I didn’t really have much choice where I was since they were running really quick,” jockey Ryan Moore said. “He didn’t run a bad race.”

Moore went to the crop past the three-furlong marker at Del Mar; he got a decent response but not a dazzling one. Highland Reel still is good, but on his fourth trip to Hong Kong, it’s fair to wonder if he’s quite as good as he once was.

Any of the other 10 will need either a career-best showing or one of the leading pair to misfire. The two Japanese horses, Tosen Basil and Kiseki, both have questions to answer. Tosen Basil is unproven at the Group 1 level, while the 3-year-old Kiseki meets older stakes horses for the first time. His good Group 1 win last out came at 1 7/8 miles over soft ground, though Kiseki did find traffic on three occasions when a solid second going 1 1/2 miles in a Group 2 two starts ago.

Max Dynamite was third in the Melbourne Cup, while Tiberian finished a wide seventh in the same race, and both horses will be tested for acceleration. The talented local Eagle Way had his preparation interrupted by pneumonia this fall.

Mr. Stunning solid favorite

Trainer John Size’s name is spoken in Hong Kong racing circles with something approaching reverence, but Size himself has the vibe of a human with a clear preference for the quantitative over the qualitative. There is one set of numbers, 37-1-5-1, that, if enhanced, might actually produce an emotional response from Size.

That is the trainer’s record in the Hong Kong International Races, and Size, through the top sprinter Mr. Stunning, is widely expected to replace the 1 in the win column with a 2 in the $2.38 million Hong Kong Sprint.

Not many horses win two races in a row in Hong Kong, where the handicapper levels the playing field with onerous weight assignments if a horse runs too well. Mr. Stunning, a 5-year-old Australian-bred gelding by Exceed and Excel, won three in a row and four of five during the last Hong Kong season while rising from Class 2 handicaps to become Group 1-placed.

After shaking off rust in his first start this year, Mr. Stunning has reeled off two more wins, and his preparatory race for the Hong Kong Sprint, the Group 2 Jockey Club Sprint over Sunday’s one-turn, 1,200-meter distance, produced a 1 1/2-length eased-up tally.

“He’s the highest-rated horse, and he’s performed that way,” Size said. “On ratings, on the way you look at the race on paper, you think he’d be the formidable horse.”

He is, and Mr. Stunning drew very well in post 4. Not so fortunate at the draw was his chief Hong Kong rival, Lucky Bubbles, who is stuck with post 1. That is not lucky, but it is nothing compared to the nightmare trip Lucky Bubbles endured in the Jockey Club Sprint, and he will be a lot closer to Mr. Stunning on Sunday than he was last out.

The race includes Stormy Liberal, the lone American horse for Sunday’s races and the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint last out. Trainer Peter Miller has done all he can to prepare Stormy Liberal to race right-handed, working him three times the “wrong” way at San Luis Rey Downs.

“We feel good about the horse we’re sending,” Miller said. “He doesn’t need Lasix. He’s a very sound horse with a good mind.”