South Africa's two contenders for Hong Kong Group 1 honours, Imbongi and Archipenko (pictured), have arrived in the glittering Far Eastern city.
Archipenko will defend his title as Audemars Piguet QE II Cup champion, a race that he won in some style last year while Imbongi will be out to frank his Dubai form in the Champions Mile event on the same day.
The Audemars Piguet QE II Cup has rich tradition attracting the world's best grass gallopers.
This year's race, title-sponsored for the 11th consecutive year by the master Swiss watchmakers, is a HK$14m International Group 1 event scheduled for Sunday 26 April at Sha Tin.
Originally named the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, the race was first run on sand over 1575 metres on 5 May 1975 to commemorate the visit to Hong Kong by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. The inaugural winner Nazakat, trained by H M Cheung and ridden by A K Cheam, was an outsider and its owner Mr and Mrs H T Barma received the Cup from Her Majesty after the race.
The Queen Elizabeth II Cup was open to international competition in 1995, when UAE representative Red Bishop was steered to victory by renowned Irish jockey Michael Kinane.
In 1999, the Queen Elizabeth II Cup was accorded International Group 2 status by the International Cataloguing Standards Committee and secured its first ever sponsorship from world-known Swiss watchmakers Audemars Piguet. Hence, the race was renamed the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup with its prize money increased to HK$5.35m in that year.
On 18 April 1999,Jim And Tonic partnered with Gerald Mosse to win the race by 2.5L on good to fast ground in 2 min 0.1 sec, setting a 2000M-turf course record that still remains unbroken today. The French raider then went on to snatch the International Group 1 Hong Kong Cup in December that year.
The prize money of the race was increased to HK$7m in 2000, when Jim And Tonic failed to defend his title going down by a short head to Industrialist. However, he managed to defeat Housemaster by the same margin, preventing the home team from landing a quinella. In a 3-way finish, the mounts of Alan Munro, Gerald Mosse and David Harrison battled hard in one of the most typically spectacular endings in the history of Hong Kong racing.
In 2001, the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup was promoted to International Group 1 with prize money increased to HK$10m. Jim And Tonic competed in the race for the third time but was defeated by Silvano which was ridden by Andreas Suborics. This was the first and only win a German horse has scored in this race so far.
In 2002, the Cup gained inclusion in the World Racing Championships as the second leg of the series and its prize money was increased to HK$14 million. From 2003 to 2005, the race was run as the first leg of the World Racing Championships.
In the 1999/2000 season, The Hong Kong Jockey Club introduced a HK$1m bonus for the winner of any of the four Hong Kong International Races (Hong Kong Cup / Hong Kong Mile / Hong Kong Vase / Hong Kong Sprint) who go on to land the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup in the same season.
However, it is not an easy feat to win the bonus. It was not until 2002 that Eishin Preston from Japan finally completed a double in the Hong Kong International Races and the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup. After capturing the Hong Kong Mile in December 2001, the Japanese contender made a come back here the following April to start in the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup. He kicked strongly in the straight and defeated another Japan contender Agnes Digital, victor of the 2001 Hong Kong Cup. Hong Kong Horse of The Year Indigenous was placed for the third time in this international race within four years.
In 2003, Eishin Preston, with his regular partner Yuichi Fukunaga in the saddle, became the first and only horse to win the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup back to back, with Hong Kong champion mare Elegant Fashion finishing second under Gerald Mosse.
A year later, Elegant Fashion was unlucky to be narrowly beaten by River Dancer to finish second again, although she was ahead of all overseas contenders. River Dancer, trained and ridden by John Size and Glyn Schofield, won at a Win price of HK$588, the longest in the race since it was open to overseas horses.
In 2005, the then reigning Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby winner Vengeance Of Rain with Anthony Delpech on board claimed the race from South African representative Greys Inn, another son of his sire Zabeel. The pair by the same sire set a record for the race in achieving a quinella. In December 2005, Vengeance Of Rain landed the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Cup and was crowned champion of the World Racing Championships that year.
In 2006, Greys Inn's trainer and jockey Mike De Kock and Weichong Marwing returned for the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup with Irridescence. The South African champion mare's original plan had been to race held up, but the running of the race demanded her to make all before defeating local contender Best Gift by a head. Irridescence was the first South African representative to win the race since London News's victory in 1997. Great Britain's Ouija Board, 2005CXHK Vase winner, came third under Frankie Dettori.
The quality of the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby was once again confirmed in the 2007 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup as the John Moore-trained Viva Pataca was steered by Michael Kinane to produce a brilliant turn of foot to beat two Group 1 winners - Vengeance Of Rain and Admire Moon who prevailed in the Dubai Sheema Classic and the Dubai Duty Free at Nad Al Sheba less than a month earlier.
Last year, after an unlucky third in the Dubai Duty Free, Archipenko produced an unstoppable stretch run under Kevin Shea to mow down some of the world's best at Sha Tin, bringing his trainer Mike de Kock the second victory in three years in this race. The South African raider had a comfortable length and three-quarters to spare over French-trained outsider Balius with defending champion Viva Pataca eclipsed in third.
The Audemars Piguet QE II Cup has been one of the most prestigious races on the international racing calendar since it was first sponsored by Audemars Piguet ten years ago. The partnership between The Hong Kong Jockey Club and Audemars Piguet has indeed set a successful example in the world's sporting arena.