Trainer John Moore hopes that the G1 Takarazuka Kinen (2200m) may prove to be the first part of a two-leg match-up between Japan and Hong Kong when Werther contests the 325 million yen (HK$23 million) feature at Hanshin on Sunday (24 June).
Moore, who returns to Japan after an 11-year absence, says he is grateful for the opportunity to bring a horse to the country after their support of the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) and Champions Day.
“The Japanese have been very kind in sending some of their best horses to race in Hong Kong,” Moore said. “Obviously, I remember watching in awe as Maurice beat my Able Friend. I thought it was about time I reciprocated by bringing Hong Kong’s champion stayer here, and hopefully some of his rivals on Sunday will again come to Hong Kong in December.
“I have great respect for Japan’s racing industry, you can never underestimate the Japanese horses. You have the best in the world right here. It is exciting to tackle them on their home turf and it would be great to see them in Hong Kong too.”
Five of Werther’s 15 rivals have raced in Hong Kong before, with 2016 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase winner Satono Crown – also the winner of this race last year – the best performed. Last year’s HKIR saw Kiseki (ninth, Vase), Staphanos (fourth, Cup) and Smart Layer (fifth, Cup) unplaced, while Danburite is coming off a last-start seventh to Pakistan Star in the G1 APQEII Cup in April.
Moore has been a prolific traveller throughout his 33 years as a trainer, winning Group 1 races abroad with Dan Excel, Military Attack and Sterling City. One who did not win overseas was Hong Kong’s highest-ever money earner Viva Pataca, second to Sun Classique in the 2008 G1 Sheema Classic in Dubai at his one international run, but the 68-year-old trainer believes Werther is on par with the stable favourite.
“In terms of the horses I’ve had, I’d put him in the same league as Viva Pataca,” Moore said. “When you match them up, they are about on the same level in respect to talent. Able Friend is probably the best horse I’ve travelled but he obviously didn’t travel well when he went to Royal Ascot. We wanted to bring him for the Yasuda Kinen but he was injured and I haven’t had another horse suited to bring here, but it is great to be back again and with a horse that is easily the best I’ve travelled here.”
Werther may have other international targets on the radar next season, too, although Moore’s primary focus is Hong Kong’s richest race, the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m), in December.
“If he can run in the first three, then we’d be looking to travel more with him, but I’m not sure he’d return to this race next year unless he had another setback that ruled out some of his intended races at home,” Moore said. “He is getting older, he’s turning seven soon, but (owner) Johnson Chen is now keen to travel him in the upcoming season. We’d be looking at Dubai, maybe the Dubai Turf – which we were very close to running him in last year – while we wouldn’t rule out going down to Singapore either with their international meeting back up and running.
“However, it all depends on how he runs on Sunday and then how he comes through the first half of his season later this year. He’ll aim at December first.”
This morning (Saturday, 23 June), Werther hacked two laps of the Hanshin dirt track under rider Romain Clavreul.
“This morning’s work was very light, nothing too serious, and he did that easily,” Moore said. “He’ll walk for an hour tomorrow but we just want to keep him calm before the races.
“He ate up very well last night and I just saw that he left very little feed. It’s just a pity that we haven’t got a few more days before the race because he would put on condition very quickly. I also wish that we’d been able to give him a mile and a quarter (2000m) race between the first-up mile run and this race because second-up syndrome is always a worry, but that’s never been a problem for this horse – he won second-up earlier this season – so hopefully it’s not on Sunday.”
The early favourite on the Japanese tote is the Katsuhiko Sumii-trained Kiseki, who will be ridden by Mirco Demuro. However, most local pundits anticipate that Satono Diamond, for trainer Yasutoshi Ikee and jockey Christophe Lemaire, will jump as the market-elect.
Both Kiseki (2017) and Satono Diamond (2016) are winners of the G1 Kikuka Sho (3000m), the Japanese St Leger, but both have also been struggling for form recently.
Others in contention are 2017 G1 Dubai Turf (1800m) winner Vivlos and emerging talent Perform A Promise, who took the G2 Nikkei Shinshun Hai (2400m) in January.