'All my horses are well, they have all had good preparations for the Derby and it looks good in theory'
David Hayes is staying in Hong Kong and nothing could emphasise the point better than an emotional first win in Hong Kong's favourite race - the Derby.
With weight of numbers, the best of the barrier draw and a versatility to a team that is ready for anything, Hayes has a firm grip on an outstanding Hong Kong Derby this afternoon. The 14 runners have an average rating of 107 and combined prize money earnings of more than $35 million - and Hayes will saddle up four of them.
'This is certainly the strongest hand I've had since Resfa started favourite for me a couple of years ago,' Hayes said yesterday. But he was not treating the race lightly. 'All my horses are well, they have all had good preparations for the Derby and it looks good in theory. But these kinds of races are never easy to win.'
It is not yet a fortnight since the death of Hayes' older brother, Peter, in a light place crash in Australia - an accident that momentarily placed David's Hong Kong training future in doubt. The question that begged an answer was whether the dual championship-winning trainer would return to carry on the legacy of his late father, Colin, at the family's South Australian breeding and training showpiece, Lindsay Park.
It was a doubt quickly erased by Hayes in the days after Peter's funeral and, although Lindsay Park will seem strange without a Hayes at the helm, David has no doubt about the operation's future under Tony McEvoy.
'My commitment is 100 per cent to Hong Kong racing,' Hayes stated. 'I suppose if Lindsay Park's winners dried up at home I might have to think about my position but I don't think that's going to happen. Part of the reason I stayed in Australia for a few days after Peter's funeral was to make sure that McEvoy was launched properly as the new master at Lindsay Park.
'Tony's a great horseman and he knows the operation backwards. Well, you've only got to look at how he's begun - I think Tony's had nine winners in the first week.'
Hayes has an easy sense of humour which is hard to contain and it breaks out now. 'Actually, I told Tony to go well but not that well,' he laughs. 'I don't want him showing me up!'
Hayes has gone into the Derby before with high expectations but racing is a great humbler. 'I haven't won the Derby but I haven't had a lot of runners, or a lot of luck,' he said. 'Resfa was pulled out of the race when he was injured in running and last year I had Kenwood Melody in the race and I thought he was desperately unlucky to lose. He was held up very badly.'
Hayes has tasted Derby success in Australia with Robert Sangster's Blevic winning the Victoria Derby of 1994, and he says there is something special about these classic events. 'It's always nice to win a major race and a Derby anywhere is a special win,' he said. 'Especially here in Hong Kong, I think, where the Derby is regarded as the best domestic race each season.'
With the best stayer in Helene Vitality and the highest-rated sprinter in Charming City, Hayes looks to have the tempo angle covered.
'I can't see them going slowly in the race whatever happens,' he commented. 'There are too many in the race that could go forward and I expect at worst it will be an even pace.' And an even pace will do Hayes just fine - but a fast pace would be even better.
Helene Vitality came from last for second in the Hong Kong Gold Cup last start, a race dominated by the leader on the day, Derby rival, Idol. A Derby winner in New Zealand under the name Hades, Helene Vitality beat Idol on that day at Ellerslie in a race run at breakneck speed and will be right at home if the leaders do run quickly today.
'Helene Vitality was bought specifically for the Derby, so it is always nice to see a plan like that come to fruition and we've got him there and in great form,' Hayes said. 'As the proven stayer, I guess I would have to lean to him of my runners and a tough staying race would just be ideal for him.'
While Helene Vitality was a purchase from New Zealand, Hayes is rightly proud of having developed his remaining trio from the start.
'We must be doing something right because Charming City, Meridian Star and Momentum all came here as griffins and here they are lining up in the Derby,' he said. 'I think the vast majority of Derby runners were purchased so to be taking young horses and developing them to this kind of standard is very pleasing.'
Charming City, on 120, is the top-rated horse in the Derby and, with more than $10 million, easily the leading money winner in the race. Hayes had the choice of Charming City or Charm Scene Land to bring to Hong Kong when they were yearlings and for some time he thought he might have chosen the wrong one.
'Charm Scene Land was a very good two-year-old in Melbourne and when he was winning Group races down there, I thought I had gone the wrong way,' Hayes recalled. 'Nowadays, I'm sure I made the right choice. Shane Dye thinks Charming City will settle and if he does relax and runs out the 2,000m then he'll race very well from where he is drawn.'
Meridian Star is not really bred to run much beyond 1,600m but Hayes sees him as the underrated member of the team.
'He finished brilliantly to win his leadup at 1,600m,' Hayes said. 'He's not bred to get 2,000m but he'll settle back and get his chance to stay the journey. If he produces the same sort of finish he can be right in this. Probably Momentum will be tested by the class. He's a horse who raced through his classes up to a 100 rating but he seems to have found his level there.'
Hayes trails Brian Kan Ping-chee by nine wins in the trainers' championship after winning it in the past two terms, but 'second at the moment' is how he describes the position.
'Realistically, Brian Kan has had a fantastic season and he would need to falter for anyone to beat him,' Hayes said, but the fierce competitor in him never says it's over. 'Still, everyone hits flat spots during a season and if that happens to Brian then I can still get up.'
Hayes never lets the negatives keep the positives down and that has had a lot to do with an unbroken path of success. From the tragedy of Peter's shocking death, he can find the inspiration to turn his life upwards again.
'It's been a torrid couple of weeks for me, for the family,' he said. 'I'd love to win this Derby and turn everything in a more positive direction again.'
He may still call Australia home one day but for now it's Hong Kong and a special Derby beckons.