Ambitious Dragon is one to beat - Guyon
Brilliant French rider Maxime Guyon landed his first local Group One on the back of Ambitious Dragon's electrifying finishing burst yesterday in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Cup - then declared the horse all but over the line for the Hong Kong Derby next month.
In just five previous runnings of the 1,800m Derby lead-up, no horse has done the double, yet Guyon was adamant Ambitious Dragon could be the first after he covered ground in the moderately run race, then simply outran his high-class rivals when it mattered.
'If things follow the same as today, he should win the Derby - he is a very good horse,' said Guyon post-race. 'Yes, the pace was slow and he has a fantastic acceleration but I think he will still have that acceleration in the Derby going another 200m. He has a very good temperament and relaxes so well and whatever the pace, he will still have that turn of foot.'
It was the sixth Group One win for Guyon in his burgeoning career but broke a long drought at the top level for trainer Tony Millard, with the trainer's last Group race success a decade ago in the Juvenile Sprint Trophy and his last Group One the Derby itself 11 years ago with Keen Winner.
But every dog has his day and the trainer roared back into the top grade as Ambitious Dragon stamped himself as the clear Derby favourite yesterday, leaving no excuse for runner-up Lucky Nine as he put almost two lengths on him at the post, despite the 29 handicap rating points between them beforehand.
'The horses don't know their rating, they just know if they are well and he was very well,' said a delighted Millard. 'The Derby has been the plan with this horse from the first day he came to me. I liked what I saw then and he has kept improving.'
Early in the season, Ambitious Dragon heralded his big future when he endured a torrid wide run pressing forward at Happy Valley to win in a lower grade, but the key to getting the best from him has been a change to quieter tactics.
'We had one little hiccup, but once we got him sorted out and decided to sit on him he has turned out a super horse. I don't have a big string so the horse has been able to get special care,' Millard said.
'Keen Winner was really a Class Two horse, who I managed to win the Derby with and I was quite proud of that. But this is a higher grade of horse than Keen Winner.'
Caspar Fownes said he will press on to the Derby after finishing second and third with Lucky Nine and Let Me Handle It, and Zac Purton said the latter had some bad luck in running.
'He got shuffled back through the field with other horses bumping him all the way and getting him off balance, and he's a big horse and didn't have the room he needed,' he said. 'He's run on from the rear in the straight and did a good job to finish third.'
Likewise, John Moore said Xtension (Darren Beadman) wasn't helped by the stop-start race. 'Darren said he was getting bumped and shoved all the way by a horse underneath him,' Moore said. 'He wouldn't have beaten the winner but he should have been much closer.'
And there was a minor pre-race drama surrounding the Sean Woods-trained Free Judgment, who went into the race off a raceday vet inspection after shifting a shoe and suffering a puncture to his right fore foot on Saturday.
'You don't need anything to go wrong in these sorts of races,' said Woods, but chief steward Kim Kelly confirmed the vets and rider Olivier Doleuze believed the incident had not affected Free Judgment's disappointing 11 of the 12 runners.
'There was nothing amiss with him again after the race,' Kelly said. 'Doleuze told us he felt the performance was down to all the buffeting the horse got during the run.'
The only time Tony Millard (left) won the Hong Kong Derby was with Keen Winner in: 2000