On the Rails

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 February, 2011, 12:00am

On face value, perhaps, the Mercedes-Benz Hong Kong Derby story for 2011 narrowed to Ambitious Dragon winning it or being unlucky, but history shows there is still likely to be a twist in the tale.

The Classic Cup on Sunday may have been retagged with the intent of indicating it as a stand-alone four-year-old Group One achievement, but its prior incarnation as the Group Two Derby Trial frankly made more sense for its place in the calendar.

Essentially, it has served as a lead-up to the Derby and no amount of rebranding will change that - it is still going to be the major Derby lead-up.

And the comprehensive win by Ambitious Dragon will lead many, including apparently his jockey Maxime Guyon, to believe Ambitious Dragon will be the Derby winner this year but for the great uncertainty of racing.

That may turn out to be the case, but history confirms the Derby and the Trial or Classic Cup or whatever you want to call it are different races.

The 1,800m event on Sunday has a long straight run from the start to the 800m turn, the only turn of the race, while the 2,000m Derby will have a niggardly consideration before turning for the first time going to the back, then a second turn from that 800m point.

The Derby is a different style of race altogether for reasons of the layout as well as the added 200m, and that has had something to do with why no horse has won both events, albeit in just five previous years of the official trial.

Horses like Hello Pretty and Floral Pegasus also won the Trial with some authority before being beaten on Derby day.

That is not to say the Trial has been a poor guide - the Derby winners in 2007 (Vital King), 2008 (Helene Mascot) and last year (Super Satin) were all close-up in the race before finding themselves better suited on the different circuit over 2,000m in the main event.

On the weekend, the Classic Cup was actually quite a well-run race in the earlier stages and the time, corrected for the state of the ground, was quite fast, but the illusion of being slowly run was created by a particularly slow section around the circle.

That section of the race proved critical to Ambitious Dragon, who came into the race without spending a penny as the head of the field eased back to him.

His previous races coming through the grades had suggested Ambitious Dragon's finishing sprint was the best in the race, so for him to be poised just two lengths off the front when that part of the race began in earnest at the 350m meant he was going to be the winner.

Whether he could have done the same job with a steadier early pace and a more meaningful speed around the circle we shall never know - he certainly would still have finished off powerfully but quite possibly giving a more significant start.

That's where the style of the Trial and the Derby itself brings an altered result from the same horses as the Derby is rarely well-run early, which might force Ambitious Dragon to sprint for longer, especially if he draws poorly.

The other two years recently when the Trial did not throw forward the winner, the Derby was won by the John Moore-trained Viva Pataca and Collection, both of whom took a different route to the race.

This year, Moore still has one ace to play in the Derby and he plays it this weekend with Destined For Glory.

Destined For Glory raced as Wade Giles in Ireland, where he was bested twice in two meetings with Pure Champion, the horse who ran last in the Classic Cup on the weekend. Now, you might think that immediately disqualifies him from consideration, except Wade Giles looked to have plenty of upside to him, while Pure Champion has the same problem as most horses who leave Aidan O'Brien's yard - he had been more thoroughly squeezed than Silvio Berlusconi at one of his dunga dunga nights.

Moore is almost out of time with Destined For Glory, so if he doesn't fire this weekend, his Derby is probably not happening, but he would bring a new path to the race into play if he does race well on Sunday.

Either way, Ambitious Dragon does represent a proper favourite, but the water continues to flow under the Derby bridge right up until March 20.