Depth of entries points to best-ever Derby

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2004, 12:00am

The last two editions of the Hong Kong Derby have been absolutely franked on International Day at the end of that year, which makes this year's opening round of high-quality Derby entries more interesting than ever.

When first-stage entries closed this week, the 2004 Derby looked the most exciting and strongly contested classic yet. Indeed, a new benchmark was established this week when Lucky Owners, on a domestic rating of 129, became the highest-rated Derby entrant ever.

Ciaran Kennelly, the Jockey Club's senior handicapper and head of international racing and planning, agrees. 'The 2004 Hong Kong Derby, the most important and prestigious race on the domestic racing calendar, has attracted undoubtedly its strongest ever list of entries,' he said. 'We have received a total of 42 entries for the Derby, and 19 horses of the 42 are rated 95 or above, compared with 15 in 2003.'

The 2002 Derby saw Olympic Express defeating Precision, and regardless of how strong that form looked at the time, it looked simply outstanding nine months later when Olympic Express narrowly rolled Electronic Unicorn in the Hong Kong Mile, and Precision overcame a wide passage to take the Hong Kong Cup.

The 2003 edition went to Australian-bred mare Elegant Fashion, who has since won the International Cup Trial (Gr 2), finished second in the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Gr 1) and Champions & Chater Cup (Gr 1), and ran that fine third to Falbrav and Rakti in the Hong Kong Cup.

Significantly, Hong Kong's best four-year-olds are dominating the biggest and richest prizes this term - a trend that continued in the recent Stewards' Cup when Derby entrants Super Kid and Hidden Dragon provided a one-two result.

Roosevelt, an excellent third in last year's Irish Derby behind champions Dalakhani and Alamshar, is the four-year-old whose upper limits have yet to be tested.

The Irish Derby form has since been confirmed, with subsequent English St Leger winner Brian Boru finishing behind Roosevelt, while Alamshar and Dalakhani have gone on to take the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Stakes and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe respectively, Europe's major middle-distance races. Roosevelt further franked the Irish form when a fourth in the Hong Kong Vase on just his second run in Hong Kong. He had a training setback after that race but trainer David Oughton believes he still has time to get the Danehill colt to the Derby at peak fitness.

The list of Group One winners entered for the classic includes Tony Cruz' second string Raider, a dual winner at racing's highest level as a juvenile in New Zealand, where he raced as Grout. Hong Kong owners have responded to Jockey Club incentives to import the best-available thoroughbreds with the aim of taking part in the Derby and, later, the internationals.

Saturn, a Group Two runner-up in France and a close fifth in the English 2000 Guineas (Gr 1) is a good example. So too is Summerland, a Group 1 runner-up in France and Liberal's Choice, a close fourth in the 2002 New Zealand Derby (Gr 1).

Perhaps the most impressive of the private-purchase Derby contenders, outside of those proven in Group company, has to be the John Moore-trained Tiber, who caned his rivals at only his second start when hacking up in Class One company on the Stewards' Cup undercard.

Tiber had impressively won a 0-110 handicap at Goodwood last year and Moore was on the spot, clinching a signed agreement to buy the horse before the Godolphin organisation attempted to swoop.

Tiber showed speed, stamina and acceleration in his Hong Kong win and bearing in mind the victory was achieved at only his second start, there seems plenty of upside.

The trainers to watch, numerically, are the Australians David Hayes and John Size, who each have seven Derby aspirants. Hayes, who won last year's Derby with Elegant Fashion, has exciting Zabeel four-year-old Beethoven being groomed for the race. Beethoven is now firmly into Class One and therefore assured of a Derby start.

However, Hayes' two Australian-bred four-year-olds, Ain't Here and Fine Society, are struggling to recapture their southern hemisphere form and it will be hard to concede them winning chances unless the trainer can mastermind a form turnaround.