Magical on a mission for historic eighth G1 – Nicholas Godfrey on the Hong Kong Cup

Horse Racing Hong Kong Ballydoyle
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Are the omens favourable for the mighty Magical as she bids to end an extraordinary season on a high in the Hong Kong Cup? NICHOLAS GODFREY asks the questions in this article for the Hong Kong Jockey Club

Seven is good but eight is better and, of course, Magical should win. Tell me something I don’t know already. The mighty mare is clearly the most accomplished horse in the Longines Hong Kong Cup, where the formidable daughter of Galileo bids for the eighth G1 success of a remarkable career.

Hong Kong International Races: all you need to know in the Sha Tin takeaway

Eight is an auspicious number in Chinese terms, indicating wealth – and it is also significant when it comes to Aidan O’Brien, who has never trained a horse to win so many times at the highest level.

The other O’Brien luminaries to achieve a magnificent seven comprise an exalted crew: Rock Of Gibraltar, Minding, Yeats and Hong Kong regular Highland Reel.

It is no exaggeration to say that Magical’s presence, alongside Ballydoyle stablemates Order Of Australia and Mogul, elevates Hong Kong’s showpiece international event, imbuing the entire card with added prestige.

After all, were it not for a certain Enable, she would have won ten G1s and we would perhaps be talking about an all-time great. Magical isn’t that, but she has been one of the world’s best for an extended period, a throwback to exceptional females like Pride, Snow Fairy and Ouija Board who graced the world stage for an extended period, Hong Kong included.

Horse Racing Magical
World-class talent: Magical wins Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot 2019. Photo courtesy of HKJC

She is fully deserving of her reputation for courage and consistency – and fully deserving of headline HKIR billing, where in a sense there could be no more appropriate winner. 

After an extraordinary year, victory for such a popular performer might be deemed a fairytale result, both for Hong Kong and for the racing world as a whole. Plus, it must be admitted, for O’Brien and Ryan Moore, who have also endured a fairly turbulent 2020.

But just wait a minute; hold your horses. There are reasons why this might not go according to script – and they involve horse, trainer and jockey. 

Bounce back needed after two defeats

Magical travels to Hong Kong with similar credentials to the wondrous mares mentioned. She also carries a similar profile to fellow O’Brien stalwart Highland Reel, who bowed out in a blaze of glory with his second Hong Kong Vase victory in 2017 just a few weeks after Magical completed her juvenile season.

Magical, too, may well be having her final start, though one cannot be dogmatic on that score given that she was due to be retired after spiking a temperature before last year’s Breeders’ Cup.

Horse Racing Highland Reel
Blaze of glory: Highland Reel ends his career with second HK Vase in 2017. Photo: HKJC

Following a Coolmore rethink, she has won three more G1s from six runs this year, among them a second triumph in Ireland’s most prestigious race, the Irish Champion Stakes, where she asserted close home to inflict Ghaiyyath’s sole defeat of the campaign with subsequent Arc hero Sottsass back in fourth.

On that form, and receiving a handy sex allowance from Japanese raider Danon Premium and rejuvenated hometown hope Furore, you might be forgiven for thinking that Magical has only to show up to claim the Cup.

However, her last two runs are enough to give pause for thought. With home advantage, the Irish Champion may well have been Magical’s primary objective and she’s been beaten twice since.

First up came the Qipco Champion Stakes, where she never got in a blow behind Addeybb, whom she had beaten in the same race 12 months previously.

O’Brien feels Magical found testing autumn ground against her at Ascot and there was another legitimate excuse when she was outspeeded in a slowly-run race by new star Tarnawa in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

A falsely-run race is not Magical’s game; she’s a sustained power-finisher rather than an instant turn-of-foot performer. That said, Ascot and Keeneland raised nagging doubts; Moore looked unhappy – not distraught, just a bit worried. Might Magical have peaked after dancing every dance for years? Could it be that, as with Enable, her final chapter will be a slight anti-climax?

Aidan seeking further HKIR glory after tough year

So much for the horse. What about her trainer? Despite the usual double-figure haul of big-race wins including a record-breaking eighth Derby, there is a feeling that things haven’t been quite right in the house of O’Brien.

Nobody on earth is as obsessive in his drive to control the controllables, a fastidious attention to detail a source of both wonderment and amusement to certain stable jockeys past.

Equine genius he may be, but in a season blighted by COVID-19, O’Brien has often been absent from the racecourse, through no fault of his own, unable to adopt his typical hands-on role. Witness the awkward incident which saw two of his runners race in the wrong saddlecloths in the Fillies’ Mile. Could that really have happened if O’Brien had been at Newmarket?

More noteworthy, perhaps, is a distinctly patchy record outside Europe. Despite a number of high-profile successes, O’Brien’s long-range efforts sometimes do not bear close scrutiny.

Horse Racing Ballydoyle work at Sha Tin
Ballydoyle trackwork ay Sha Tin: (l-r, Order Of Australia, Mogul and Magical). Photo: HKJC

For example, Highland Reel’s exploits mask an overall record of two wins from 21 runners in Hong Kong, where high-profile disappointments have included Classic winners Scorpion and Brian Boru, Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck and an odds on reverse for Irish Derby and Arc winner Dylan Thomas. None of that illustrious quartet made the first six at Sha Tin.

Though it seems contrarian to suggest so after a historic Breeders’ Cup Mile where Hong Kong Mile hope Order Of Australia led home an O’Brien 1-2-3, the stable’s record in North America is also hardly a thing of beauty.

Europe is the happiest hunting ground and the Ballydoyle strike-rate in Group 1s closer to home is vastly superior.

As if to emphasise the point, O’Brien’s recent assault on the Melbourne Spring Carnival appeared ill-starred indeed. With O’Brien marooned on the other side of the planet, his representatives finished second in the Caulfield Cup, Cox Plate and Melbourne Cup for an unlikely Spring Carnival treble.

Aidan O’Brien’s record outside Europe
Hong Kong2-219.5%
Saudi Arabia0-2
UAE (Dubai)4-439.3%

Frustrating as that must have been, tragically worse were the fatal injuries to Anthony Van Dyck and Wichita, while last year’s Hong Kong Cup runner-up Magic Wand was retired after a setback.

As such, there might be no better way to end a tempestuous period than with a triumph in Hong Kong – but that’s not necessarily the way the fortune cookie crumbles when O’Brien horses board the trans-global express.

Moore in the spotlight as Cup clash beckons

Then we come to Ryan Moore, who arrives in Hong Kong under more scrutiny than at most times in his career as a modern-era great.

Perhaps for the first time, questions have been asked about his position as Ballydoyle’s number one amid speculation, subsequently quashed, that rising star Colin Keane is being primed. And, with Christophe Soumillon ruled out by a positive COVID test, it was Keane who deputised on Tarnawa to deny Moore and Magical at Keeneland.

Moore could be forgiven for thinking he has a score to settle after last year’s HKIR, where Magic Wand was unlucky not to beat Win Bright in the Cup.

Magical is undoubtedly a superior performer to Magic Wand. But it is a fact – a coarse fact, maybe, but a fact nonetheless – that her three wins in 2020 have come under JA Heffernan, WM Lordan and JA Heffernan. On board for her defeats? R Moore, R Moore and R Moore.

Being on the wrong horse in major races was an occupational hazard for Ballydoyle’s main rider long before the pandemic appeared.

But for Ryan, it is beginning look like a habit: O’Brien has had 14 G1 winners in 2020. Moore has been aboard just four of them, and none of the five since Love won the Yorkshire Oaks in August. In short, it seems safe to assume that, after four seconds at the Breeders’ Cup, Mr Moore’s appetite for Sha Tin success will be keener than ever this year.

Redemption of sorts awaits in the shape of Magical, for whom a lucrative victory in the Hong Kong Cup would end a uniquely challenging year on a high, for both Moore and O’Brien.

She’ll be a strong fancy, especially if one of O’Brien’s earlier runners wins; and she may simply be too good, ensuring the final leg of the Magical mystery tour produces historic G1 win number eight.

But at likely odds, you probably shouldn’t bank on it. After all, 2020 has been a peculiar year. For many and varied reasons.

• More about the Longines Hong Kong International Races at the HKJC website

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