Defending champion Flintshire once again ranks as the highest rated runner in Sunday’s Hong Kong Vase (G1), the first of the International Races with a post time of 1 a.m. (EST). But unlike last December, the money-spinning globetrotter will likely face a stiffer challenge from well-regarded sophomores Highland Reel and Dariyan as well as the peaking Cannock Chase.

Flintshire sets a lofty standard on form, summed up by his second-place efforts in the past two runnings of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). As that implies, the Andre Fabre charge is better known for his admiral string of placings at the highest level, including the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Yet Flintshire is well capable of throwing his weight around in the right spot. Case in point: the August 29 Sword Dancer (G1) at Saratoga, where his opponents proved to be overmatched, and he simply mauled them. Last year’s Hong Kong Vase was likewise an exercise in astute placement, with Flintshire being some way the best horse in the race. Even so, he was more workmanlike than dominant over a less than stellar bunch.

If you’re looking to beat the favorite, you can make a more substantive case than you could have at this venue a year ago. Aside from the overall better quality of the field, Flintshire’s fall campaign has been rather more fluid than first expected. He passed on the Breeders’ Cup Turf in order to focus on the Japan Cup (G1), only to skip Tokyo as well, and aim instead for a repeat here. (Full disclosure: I’d made way too much of his Sword Dancer being a change of plan, and my carping about that was blasted to smithereens in about two strides.) If he runs up to his best form, the Juddmonte homebred is obviously the one to beat. But he promises to be an unpalatably short price compared to a few very intriguing rivals.

Although no three-year-old male has won the Vase (its only sophomore winners being fillies), that stat could be eliminated Sunday. Highland Reel and Dariyan bring similar European formlines that don’t put them far off Flintshire, they’re both improving, and they get five pounds from their elders.

Highland Reel is familiar to American fans, thanks to his front-running conquest of the Secretariat (G1) on Arlington Million Day. In that light, and combined with his renowned Coolmore connections and trainer Aidan O’Brien (who has yet to win an HKIR event), he’s probably going to offer less value than Dariyan. On the plus side, his tactical speed should put him in a good spot early, and he has the advantage of already being a proven international traveler. The blueblood son of Galileo most recently ventured to Australia and finished a creditable third in the Cox Plate (G1). On the other hand, he stretches back out to about 1 1/2 miles in the Vase. Highland Reel has had mixed results at this trip, disappointing in the Irish Derby (G1) before rebounding versus lesser in the Gordon (G3) at Glorious Goodwood. Lest I be a little too hard on him, I should add that he’s come further along the developmental curve since then. Note that all-world jockey Ryan Moore parts company with Cannock Chase in order to stick with Highland Reel.

Dariyan (left) is out of one of those three-year-old filly Vase heroines, Daryakana, who denied Juddmonte runner in Spanish Moon in 2009. The Aga Khan homebred has collateral form with Highland Reel, chiefly the fact that both have finished second to the high-class colt New Bay. In the Arc, New Bay was third, just a neck adrift of Flintshire. On paper, that would put Flintshire ahead of his younger rivals here, but still-maturing three-year-olds have a way of crumpling up the paper. Also like Highland Reel, Dariyan has mixed results at the Vase trip: he readily won a Saint-Cloud conditions race over 1 1/2 miles, but then checked in fourth as the favorite in the Prix du Lys (G3).

That loss looked better in hindsight when Lys winner Erupt came back to win the Grand Prix de Paris (G1), and Erupt has since finished a solid fifth in the Arc and sixth (best of the internationals) in the Japan Cup. Dariyan promptly bounced back with a good-looking score in the 10-furlong Prix Eugene Adam (G2), and he proved a persistent second to New Bay last out in the Prix Guillaume d’Ornano (G2). Freshened since August, the Shamardal colt was expected to try the Breeders’ Cup, but stayed home after a subpar work at Chantilly. Trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre chalks that up to Dariyan’s unhappiness at that track. He’s eligible to take another step forward here.

Although Cannock Chase (right) has been deserted by Moore, he’s in career-best form at present. We’ll cue the common refrain: “typical Sir Michael Stoute improver.” Shelved after a convincing victory in the 2014 Tercentenary (G3) at Royal Ascot, he had no luck this season (from running into unsuitably soft ground to traffic trouble to physical issues) until stepping up to 1 1/2 miles two back at Newmarket. Cannock Chase finally had the right scenario to flaunt his talent, and he made it two in a row with a sparkling turn of foot in the Canadian International (G1). This is a tougher spot, but he gets a fine tactician aboard in Pat Smullen.

The other internationals have more question marks. It’s never easy to disregard the venerable Cirrus des Aigles, but the nine-year-old hasn’t been the same since returning from a summer injury, and he’s 0-for-5 in the HKIR (albeit with a couple of fine performances in Cups past). Ming Dynasty’s only career loss came when sweating up badly before the Prix Niel (G2), and he shrugged that off to beat decent older horses in the Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2). Perhaps I’m underestimating the unexposed sophomore, but this smacks of a fact-finding mission ahead of 2016. I might also be a tad unfair to Australia’s Preferment, a proven stayer with a useful turn of foot. All three of his wins, notably the 2014 Victoria Derby (G1) and the October 4 Turnbull (G1), have come in tight finishes, showing his toughness and determination as a closer. Toss out his reverses in the Cox Plate (which didn’t really figure to suit him) and the Melbourne Cup (G1) (where he was badly hampered). Still, I can’t get past the fact that no Australian has won this race, and that the European shippers bring a higher standard of form.

Of the locals, Dominant has appeal as the upsetter of this race back in 2013 (over the unlucky The Fugue). He was only fourth to Flintshire last year, but as trainer John Moore has observed, his veteran is entering in even better form now than he was two years ago. Moore credits his trip to Australia earlier in the season as the making of him. Indeed, Dominant ran a mighty race upon his return to Hong Kong for the May 31 Champions & Chater Cup (G1), rallying furiously to miss in a photo with Helene Super Star in his best-ever result in that event. The 1 1/2-mile specialist should be forgiven his recent losses going shorter – which were just preps, after all – and his closing fifth last time in the Jockey Club Cup (G2) was a super tune-up under very tender handling.

Moore has another logical chance in the younger Helene Happy Star, who ironically was fifth to Cannock Chase in the Tercentenary (when racing under his original name of Barley Mow). Steadily improving in each leg of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Series over the winter, Helene Happy Star has found his niche at this trip. He stole the Queen Mother Memorial Cup (G3), finished third in the blanket Champions & Chater, and most recently prepped in the Jockey Club Cup and edged Dominant home in fourth.

Helene Super Star (not to be confused with Happy Star) won the 2013 U.A.E. Derby (G2) for O’Brien, when known as Lines of Battle. While capable of a strong effort on occasion, as in the Champions & Chater, he’s not shown much so far this fall. Khaya, who parlayed a front-running role into an overachieving third in last year’s Vase, is unlikely to repeat the feat. The other locals, Ensuring and Harbour Master, are up against it.

Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club.

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