Christophe Soumillon returns to the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races with a score to settle this Sunday (12 December) at Sha Tin after missing out on riding in last year’s end-of-year showcase due to an unfortunate COVID-19 mishap.
Engaged to ride Normcore in the 2020 Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) and more, Soumillon was forced to watch on the sidelines as the grey captured Hong Kong’s most lucrative race under the hands of Zac Purton.
While he missed out on last year’s “Turf World Championships”, Soumillon’s short-term stint that followed still proved fruitful with 11 wins collected from December through February.
“I’m happy to be here again (in Hong Kong), hopefully the conditions this time around are better than last year, because two days before (last year) it was looking great like today but unfortunately the COVID-19 test wasn’t sufficient for me to ride and unfortunately I missed out on some nice rides,” Soumillon said.
And now 12 months on, Soumillon – widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest in the saddle – returns to Hong Kong with a vengeance, armed with a strong pair from Japan and a French contender for the H H Aga Khan IV bidding to provide legendary trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre with a fairy tale end to his career before retirement.
The winner of 11 French Classic races and 12 majors in Hong Kong – including a 2006 Hong Kong Derby success – Soumillon’s Japan connections see him hop aboard Lei Papale in the HKD$30 million LONGINES Hong Kong Cup and Resistencia in the Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) for Japan.
“Everything is great this time – I am feeling great, I am in good shape and I was quite happy this morning with how both the horses I worked looked, it’s good to be here,” Soumillon said.
Soumillon partnered Lei Papale in a 1200m gallop Friday morning (10 December) on the dirt, clocking 1m 32.5s (34.4, 31.0, 27.1) for the effort.
“I’m looking forward to the race, I’m very confident because the filly was moving well this morning, she was trying to take off in the straight and I needed to control her because she was looking very motivated,” Soumillon said.
Lei Papale won her first six starts, culminating with Group 1 Osaka Hai (2000m) glory, however, since stepping beyond that trip to 2200m she has only been able to place once from three attempts.
“I’m sure getting back to 2000 metres is much better for her, I’m quite happy with the draw as well, I’m not sure she likes to be between horses on the rail as she was last time, so if we can sit outside that will be great,” Soumillon said.
Assistant trainer Takashi Matsui agrees: “I think 2000 metres is the best distance for her, I think it is a very strong field in the Hong Kong Cup, so it’s not easy to win but her best will give her a chance to win.”
Lei Papale is trained out of Ritto – to the east of Kyoto – under the care of Tomokazu Takano, trainer of 2015 Group 1 Japan Cup (2400m) winner Shonan Pandora.
“Physically, she looks quite light, she is not a heavy filly but I have ridden quite a few great fillies from Japan that didn’t look that big but did great,” Soumillon said.
Soumillon boasts three top-level wins in Japan, winning the 2014 Japan Cup atop Epiphaneia, 2010 Group 1 Tenno Sho Autumn (2000m) with Buena Vista and 2019 Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2200m) with Lucky Lilac.
“She is the type of horse with quite a lot of speed, she can be a bit keen in her races and that’s what she showed last time in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup in Japan,” Soumillon said.
Assistant trainer Takashi Matsui outlined that it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Lei Papale since her arrival in Hong Kong.
“After she landed here, after three days she was not eating quite well but now she’s started getting used to being here,” Matsui said.
In Hong Kong, Soumillon boasts big-race wins aboard Viva Pataca, Good Ba Ba, Gold-Fun, Giant Treasure and Admire Mars.
“I’m lucky to have always have had some nice runs and I have been lucky to run in the first three sometimes (in the Hong Kong Cup) but it will be an incredibly happy moment for me if I was to win the Hong Kong Cup,” Soumillon said.
Earlier on the card, Soumillon gets the leg-up on Resistencia in the LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint – also for Carrot Farm Co Ltd who own Lei Papale.
Last-start, Resistencia finished second in the Groupu 1 Sprinters Stakes (1200m) at Nakayama behind Pixie Knight who also lines up this Sunday.
“I’m quite happy with the draw, we are in the middle so if we can follow some nice horses that will be great, I think the two (other) Japanese horses look quite strong as well and it’s a very open race,” Soumillon said, referring to Pixie Knight and Danon Smash.
While a two-time winner of the Hong Kong Mile, Soumillon is without a ride in the contest but partners Ebaiyra in the Group 1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase (2400m).
“Last year she was a real Grade 2 and 3 filly and I was quite surprised with how she won her first two races this season, especially the first one at Longchamp – she was quite keen all of the way and it was the first time over 2000 metres that she gave me a really strong turn-of-foot because last year she was more able to do 2400 with a smooth turn-of-foot but this year she was really different,” Soumillon said.