Time best guide in the griffin minefield
A feature of last Saturday's nine-race card at Sha Tin was the number of newcomers on show.
The afternoon kicked off with the first griffin contest of the season and it's always a bit of a punting minefield until later in the campaign when a pattern to the merit of the form of these youngsters emerges.
It takes a good while before the form handicappers can string together enough collateral form lines to get to grips with the relative abilities of different animals, but there are not the same limitations with speed ratings. Time analysis gives us an immediate assessment of a performance, and on Saturday Serve And Volley out-pointed Gulch Lightning (34) with a Topspeed rating of 38.
But what does that tell us about the ability and future betting possibilities of those griffins? As a rating of a single performance, a speed figure is limited in that it represents a minimum ability of that horse (who is to say Serve And Volley couldn't have clocked a faster time if need be?) and it doesn't project any likely improvement.
Potential improvement is a most important factor when considering these young, inexperienced horses.
For a start, there is the natural physical improvement expected as a horse matures with age and then there is the experience factor.
A rule of thumb for the average progress from the experience of having a first race is seven pounds, although it has to be regarded as a very rough guide as any improvement is naturally dependent on the nature of the horse and how it was prepared for the race.
A precocious animal who has done bags of work won't improve as much as the more late maturing type who has been brought along steadily.
Any improvement due to physical improvement is also obviously dependent on the type of horse involved. Some animals are virtually the finished article at two, others, such as European Champion Pilsudski, don't give an indication of their true worth until they are four or even five.
However, the official weight-for-age scale used in Europe suggests an average two-year-old can be expected to improve around 17 pounds over the next year.
Using those rules of thumb, we can therefore expect Serve And Volley and Gulch Lightning to at least prove effective in Class Four and probably Class Three.
Indeed, considering the generally inflated handicap ratings compared to speed figures in the higher classes, there is an argument that this pair may also make it into Class Two or above.
The first griffin race of the season has been staged earlier in the campaign in each of the last three years, a trend that may suggest that this race favours the precocious types that could be passed by in future months.
However, the subsequent effort of the last two winners of the first griffin race of the season certainly doesn't suggest that.
Tony Cruz, who was responsible for the runner-up Gulch Lightning, introduced Electronic Zone to win the race last year with a Topspeed rating of 32. He ended the season running second in the Group Two Sha Tin Vase and clocking a best time rating of 61.
In 1995, Chop Chop recorded a Topspeed rating of 38 when winning the first griffin contest, completing that season with a perfect four from four record and earned a very smart time figure of 81 in his second season.
Another newcomer to the territory that it could pay to keep an eye on is Johan Cruyff. Although not inspiring in his work, he made an encouraging Hong Kong debut to run second to Forest Spring (77) in the Class One Ladies Purse.
The time was certainly nothing special, although the winner ran to his best of 77 and proved he didn't need a wet track, and in clocking a rating of 78 Johan Cruyff wasn't running to his best achieved in Ireland.
He recorded a figure of 97 when fourth in the Irish Derby but his efforts at the weekend suggest he has acclimatised well and he clearly remains an exciting prospect when stepped up in trip.