On the Rails
John Moore-trained Irian's quiet, inoffensive barrier trial at Sha Tin yesterday was a firm reminder of the proximity of crunch time for the four-year-olds as attention shifts to the classic group.
Last year's Derby winner, Collection, was an exception in so many ways, making his local debut in mid-February, but history shows that form in January, particularly the back half of it, has been the pointer to classic success.
Another four of the last nine Derby winners made their local debuts in January and had posted at least one serious performance by the end of the month.
The Jockey Club published the first ranking of the four-year-olds on Monday, including the 42 Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby first entries, and two related aspects stood out - the depth in terms of the handicapper's ratings and the question of whether some of those purchased with the Derby in mind will even get close to lining up in either that race or the Classic Mile and Derby Trial lead-ups.
For a stronger top to a Classic Mile group at this stage we can go back three years to Floral Pegasus, who boasted a rating of 120 before it and the top three in the entries all had figures over 112.
In the two runnings since, a 110 mark would have earned the number one saddlecloth and a mark in the mid- to high-80s saw the holder comfortably into the field.
Helene Mascot aside, trainer Tony Cruz has often built up a strong ratings foundation for his four-year-old classic horses such as Floral Pegasus, Lucky Owners and the like, who raced through the grades as three-year-olds and were competition hardened by the time they turned four.
Beauty Flash fits that pattern and heads the list with a 116 rating ahead of Tuscan Spirit (112), with a quick drop away to Moore's White Jade (103), Caspar Fownes' injury-sidelined Fair Trade (101) and Irian on a quite reasonable 99, but things get fairly crowded in the 90s thereafter.
Twelve months ago, a rating of 86 was sufficient to get a start in the Classic Mile, run on January 18 and six days later in 2010, but still bearing down on us at a fair rate.
Well, in the list published on Monday, a rating of 86 managed to rank equal 25th in the order of entry on face value, and more likely equal 26th once the club gets around to assessing unrated Carthage, formerly Beheshtam, from the Moore stable.
A horse like Paul O'Sullivan's Napa II, who had the Derby and his name mentioned in the same sentence on New Year's Day, faces something of a task off his mark of 73, but even form horses like Super Satin (91) and Algarve (89) are outside the fringe of qualification.
The likelihood is that several in front of them will drop out, if not before the Classic Mile then after it when reality and the longer distances kick in, but the possibility exists, too, for others to advance their prospects.
Of course, as always, the handicapper's initial rating won't mean an awful lot for some of the better explored 'Derby horses' who don't make it and find themselves in Class Three or Four this time next year.
It's all about who gets here, acclimatises and lives up to it on the track and that's what we have to look forward to in the coming weeks.