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Romantic Warrior (light blue) just holds on to defend his Hong Kong Cup crown (Picture: HKJC)

James McDonald declares back-to-back Hong Kong Cup champion ‘toughest racehorse I’ve ever sat on’

Romantic Warrior joins California Memory as a two-time winner of the city’s richest race, pipping Luxembourg six weeks on from his Cox Plate triumph

by Mark Worwood (South China Morning Post)

James McDonald declared Romantic Warrior “the toughest racehorse I’ve ever sat on” after Danny Shum Chap-shing’s globetrotter returned from Australia to win the Group One Longines Hong Kong Cup (2,000m) at Sha Tin on Sunday and join California Memory as a two-time winner of the city’s richest race.

Romantic Warrior, who won the Group One Cox Plate (2,040m) at Moonee Valley on October 28, beat Irish raider Luxembourg – a top-level victor at two, three and four – by a short head to equal the Hong Kong Cup feats of 2011 and 2012 champion California Memory.

Success in the HK$36 million Hong Kong Cup, worth more than HK$20 million to the first past the post, lifted Romantic Warrior’s earnings above HK$100 million and improved his record to 12 wins from 17 starts.

McDonald, whose only defeat from his six rides aboard Romantic Warrior came when they combined for fourth place in the Group One Turnbull Stakes (2,000m) three weeks before their history-making Cox Plate triumph, was effusive in his praise for his equine partner following their second Hong Kong Cup triumph.

“He’s the toughest racehorse I’ve ever sat on,” McDonald said. “He’s got a heart as big as a lion. His courage, his will to win is something I’ve never felt before. I’ve ridden some fantastic racehorses – unbelievable ones – and he’s right up there.

“To come back from a Cox Plate, I thought was going to be a ginormous task. For him to come here and do what he did in a Hong Kong Cup for the second time after all those hurdles he has had to overcome – it was a small margin, but he has come through with flying colours. This is his best win.”

Romantic Warrior’s second Hong Kong Cup victory was nothing like his first. Whereas in 2022, Panthalassa ensured that the race had a fast tempo, and the local hero dipped under two minutes in his four-and-a-half-length success, 2023 front runner Money Catcher took the field into the home straight more than 1.3 seconds outside the class benchmark, with the winner clocking 2:02.00 and prevailing in a photo finish.

Ryan Moore, sensing the Hong Kong Cup’s slow pace was detrimental to Luxembourg’s chances, got busy aboard the Aidan O’Brien-trained galloper, and they drew level with McDonald and Romantic Warrior 600m out.

“I wouldn’t have minded it coming at the 400m – it would have given me a little bit more of a breather – but that’s why Ryan Moore is the best jockey in the world,” McDonald said about the strategic in-running move the British rider made on his Irish mount.

“He’s tactically so good, and he probably saw that if my horse was going to be vulnerable, it was going to be in this race. But I’m so humbled – so honoured – to be associated with such a great racehorse.”

Like McDonald, Romantic Warrior supplied Shum with his second Hong Kong International Races win. And like McDonald, Shum commended the galloper.

“He had a really hard race [in the Cox Plate],” Shum said. “He came back [from Australia] on a long flight. Ten hours. Two weeks in quarantine. No matter how he works on the treadmill, it’s not easy at all. Luckily, Romantic Warrior is a real warrior.”

Shum will speak with Romantic Warrior’s owner, Peter Lau Pak-fai, to determine the five-year-old Hong Kong International Sale graduate’s future itinerary.

“I’ll leave it to Peter,” Shum said. “He’ll give me his decision, and I’ll follow his plan.”