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Romantic Warrior gallops under James McDonald on Thursday

Riding a wave of Cox Plate glory, Romantic Warrior’s most important test of 2023 awaits

By completing an enormous year in style at Sha Tin on Sunday, Danny Shum’s star can show success abroad does not have to come at a cost at home
by Sam Agars (South China Morning Post)
Romantic Warrior’s history-making Group One Cox Plate (2,040m) victory will surely prove to be his most exhilarating and unforgettable 2023 achievement.
However, the four-time Group One winner’s final act of the year might be his most important.
Romantic Warrior overcame all sorts of adversity – feed issues, stringent veterinary procedures, unfamiliar surroundings – to plunder Australia’s most prestigious race.
His efforts were the talk of the town, and Peter Lau Pak-fai’s sense of adventure was an inspiration to fellow owners.
A below-par showing in his Group One Hong Kong Cup (2,000m) defence on Sunday, though, would set tongues wagging at an even greater rate.
At a time when risk-averse owners are not willing to look past the potential pitfalls of travel, a Romantic Warrior flop this weekend would add considerable weight to their approach.
Should Romantic Warrior turn up at his best – or close to it – and show he has come back from his travels in tip-top shape, the upside in regards to Hong Kong’s presence abroad could be significant.
However, the pass mark cannot be to win, for whatever Danny Shum Chap-shing’s superstar has been through already, his toughest task on the track looks yet to come.
In Japanese pair Prognosis and Rousham Park, Aidan O’Brien’s Luxembourg and French three-year-old Horizon Dore, Romantic Warrior faces serious opposition.
A touch ironic is the fact master Irishman O’Brien is the only trainer this century, and perhaps ever, to take a horse – 2015 Group One Hong Kong Vase (2,400m) victor Highland Reel – from a Cox Plate run to a Hong Kong International Races (HKIR) victory on their next start.
O’Brien means business – “no doubt” was his answer when asked if his four-pronged attack is the strongest he has ever launched on HKIR – and Luxembourg is the highest-rated horse he has brought to Hong Kong since Highland Reel.
Prognosis is hungry for redemption, and while it was Zac Purton in the saddle when the five-year-old finished second to Romantic Warrior in April’s Group One QE II Cup (2,000m), star Japanese jockey Yuga Kawada will be on his back this weekend.
Whether that will make a difference for a galloper who was slow away before finishing two lengths adrift in April remains to be seen, but overseas fixed-odds bookmakers have him installed as the clear second favourite at $3.80.
There has been plenty of chat this week that Romantic Warrior is more than worth risking at $2.70 considering the enormity of the assignment and his taxing trip Down Under, but the stable is exuding a quiet confidence that suggests they are expecting something big on Sunday.
Jockey James McDonald, who is making a flying – and somewhat risky – trip to Perth to ride Zaaki in Saturday’s Group One Northerly Stakes (1,800m), has marvelled at Romantic Warrior’s ability to improve markedly in a short space of time, and the galloper’s physio, Tom Simpson, revealed on Thursday that “he’s really sparked up this week”.
No horse has won a Hong Kong Cup by more than Romantic Warrior’s four-and-a-half-length margin 12 months ago. This weekend, as he looks to join California Memory as a two-time winner of the city’s richest race, a whisker will do.