Lucky Lilac will make her overseas debut in the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase on Sunday as one of an impressive nine-strong raiding party from Japan.
A star juvenile and placed behind Almond Eye in two classics at three, the Mikio Matsunaga-trained four-year-old has gradually regained her peak form, winning for the first time since the March 2018 Group 2 Tulip Sho (1600m) when bursting along the rail in devastating style to land the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2200m) last month.
“I have always thought she is a really talented filly, and she actually is. Even when she was beaten in races, she finished close to the winner all the time, so the victory of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup has been within my expectations,” said Matsunaga’s assistant Eishu Maruuchi, who has overseen preparations at Sha Tin ahead of his boss’s arrival.
Maruuchi is accustomed to overseas assignments, travelling several times to Dubai and the USA with Awardee (2017/2018 Group 1 Dubai World Cup) and Lani (2016 Group 2 UAE Derby, US Triple Crown and 2017 Dubai World Cup meetings).
Lucky Lilac is from first crop of the exceptional, at times exasperating, two-time Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe runner-up Orfevre out of the Flower Alley mare Lilacs And Lace.
The Vase challenger was a champion juvenile filly in 2017 thanks to her perfect sequence of four wins, and was thought to be an exciting prospect for the classic season. However, Lucky Lilac was “unlucky” to have been born into the same generation as Almond Eye, one of the best fillies of racing age in the world. Lucky Lilac failed to make it to the winner’s circle in any of the classic races, which were all captured by Almond Eye, finishing 2nd, 3rd and 9th respectively as her rival claimed the Triple Tiara.
Matsunaga’s string is based at the JRA’s Ritto Training Centre near Kyoto and Lucky Lilac started off this year from that base competing against mostly male company in the Group 2 Nakayama Kinen (1800m) back in February. She edged ahead in the stretch, but eventual winner Win Bright, successful in the Group 1 FWD QEII Cup at Sha Tin in April and a rival on Sunday, fought back, driving on to score by a neck.
In her next start, the Group 2 Hanshin Himba Stakes (1600m) in April, Lucky Lilac hit traffic in the final turn, but still managed to finish only 0.2 seconds behind the winner in eighth place. Fourth to Normcore, a LONGINES Hong Kong Mile contender, in the Group 1 Victoria Mile in May seemed better on paper, but her regular jockey Shu Ishibashi said: “She was not able to run her race.”
Her first race up from a five-month summer break was the Group 2 Fuchu Himba Stakes (1800m) at Tokyo on 14 October. She travelled nicely from midfield and put up a fine effort but was unable to find a second wind and finished third.
Then came her finest moment to date in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup: Lucky Lilac broke sharply under Christophe Soumillon and settled along the rail in mid-pack. When the field spread out at the top of the stretch, the Belgian ace kept her to the inside and with an impressive turn-of-foot passed Crocosmia and race favorite Loves Only You for a length and a quarter win.
“I felt a true bond with Orfevre, and her too since she is his daughter,” said Soumillon, who was winning a first JRA Group 1 since Epiphaneia’s Japan Cup five years earlier.
And, with reference to his two Arc defeats aboad Lucky Lilac’s sire, he said: “I am really pleased to win the race and feel like I was able to get a little redemption after disappointing results in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in 2012 and 2013.
Lucky Lilac’s connnections paid the HK$200,000 supplementary fee to enter the LONGINES Hong Kong Vase after missing the free entry phase. She arrived at Sha Tin racecourse on 27 November.
Maruuchi said of her journey to Hong Kong: “She showed some hesitation to get on and off the stalls, but once she understood what was going on, she settled down quickly. The travel to Hong Kong was not long, so she ate well and drank well after she arrived at Sha Tin.”
“We’ve been making slight adjustments to her training both here and in Japan to make sure we can get the best out of her here. She seems to be responding very well. The track has a nice bounce to it and it seems really easy to run on.”
Becoming Orfevre’s first international Group 1 winner would be a great way to add some deserved gloss to her sire’s overseas reputation.