Local duo perfectly balanced for QE II clash
TONY HARBIDGE (Topspeed)
Billed as the best Hong Kong Derby for years, the 1998 Classic didn't disappoint with Johan Cruyff producing an exhilarating performance that simply oozed class.
With Danzighill and Hunting Lad running each other into the ground up front, the pace was hot and Eric Legrix was content to let Johan Cruyff lob a long towards the rear of the field. Asked to make ground from the 800-metre mark, he responded with the greatest of ease and the result was not in doubt well before he was sent on over 200 metres out.
Eased down close home, not even connections of the winner could have dreamt of the sheer dominance of the Patrick Biancone-trained four-year-old, and a winning time of one minute and 47.7 seconds amply confirms the quality of the performance.
Stripping away the hyperbole and reducing the win to the bare figures, Johan Cruyff trotted-up with a Topspeed rating of 95.
That's certainly not the best time figure ever recorded in the territory, but it is probably the best Derby-winning performance since River Verdon and it sets up a Queen Elizabeth II Cup clash with the 1997 Derby hero, Oriental Express.
To put the performance into perspective, the past three winners of the race have failed to break the 80 mark. That includes Oriental Express (78), Che Sera Sara (77) and Makarpura Star (75), while Biancone's 1993 winner, Helene Star, clocked a time rating of 88.
Yes, all of the last three winners went on to record superior figures. Makarpura Star and Che Sara Sara recorded a best rating of 85, and Oriental Express recorded a 97 when just missing out to American raider Val's Prince in this season's International Cup.
That International Cup second actually rates the best performance this campaign by a home-trained animal. However, there is no saying that Johan Cruyff won't follow the usual pattern of Derby winners and prove capable of recording superior figures.
Indeed, the manner of victory on Sunday suggests he could certainly have extended his winning distance by another length and thus improve his Topspeed rating to 97.
The 2,000-metre trip of the QE II Cup should prove ideal for both Oriental Express and Johan Cruyff and, on the evidence so far, there is nothing to chose between the pair.
The Ivan Allan-trained Oriental Express has the Gold Cup first but, as things stand, a showdown with Johan Cruyff looks perfectly balanced and one to look forward to with great pleasure. Of course, the QEII Cup won't be a two-horse affair and the greatest overseas challenge is likely to come from Dubai, which has Cape Cross and Starborough entered.
The entry of Starborough is surely acknowledgement that there are now no soft wins to be had in Hong Kong and is testament to the respect for the quality of racing in the territory.
He ran fourth in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and followed it with two Group One successes, including the St James' Palace Stakes, which was a race that boasted three European Classic winners in the field.