Dragon sets Derby alight on a day of high drama

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

Not even an earthquake yesterday could stop the brilliant favourite Ambitious Dragon from a stunning victory at Sha Tin on a Mercedes-Benz Derby day of high drama.

The 14 Derby runners were parading in the paddock when the 6.1-magnitude earthquake struck the northern Philippines, and while it could be felt at the Sha Tin track, most racegoers appeared not to notice it.

They were too intent on studying the classic four-year-olds for the HK$16 million Group One race, which had already been shaken three hours earlier with an injury to top jockey Darren Beadman that had trainer John Moore scrambling for a late replacement on his top Derby fancy, Xtension.

Ming Hoi Treasure, Beadman's first ride of the day, was in the barriers for race two when a horse in the stall next door having its first race went berserk and in turn sent Ming Hoi Treasure into a panic.

'He tried to jump out of the gate then and kept banging against the inside of it and jammed my leg against the steel frame,' Beadman said later, with his leg encased in ice in an effort to be back riding for the Dubai World Cup meeting this week.

Three horses were withdrawn from the race, including Ming Hoi Treasure, Beadman was unfit to continue and HK$7 million worth of Jockey Challenge betting was cancelled under the rules as the Australian had been an odds-on favourite to win.

South African Jeff Lloyd, on his first day back from a month's suspension, was enlisted to ride Xtension and gave him a perfect ride to finish second but the Derby proved to be one of those rare races without a hard-luck story.

French prodigy Maxime Guyon had declared Ambitious Dragon the Derby winner a month before after winning the Classic Cup on the gelding and there was an 'I told you so' look about it as the field cracked open at the 300m and the favourite surged from the back to brush Xtension aside and win with a little in hand.

'I only hit him once with the whip, he won quite easily - and I am sure that he will measure up to international Group One class,' said Guyon, who has a four-from-four record on the Tony Millard-trained gelding. He had flown in especially for the race and will likely do so again for the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup on May 1.

'I couldn't complain - I had a great run but the winner came to me very quickly,' said Lloyd. 'Take out the winner and I beat the rest by almost four lengths.'

For winning trainer Millard, it was a second Derby, 11 years after success with Keen Winner in the South African's debut season and Ambitious Dragon has ended a Group One drought just as long with his last two victories.

In recent times, Millard has been better known for his ability to turn around the careers of some of the bottom-level horses in Hong Kong racing and it must have touched a raw nerve.

Asked how far Ambitious Dragon could go, Millard quipped: 'Maybe I should ask some of the well-informed press here as I seem to have progressed from a Class Five trainer to a Derby trainer again.

'You only get one or two of these kinds of horses in your lifetime, he is really top class and I feel very lucky to have got him.'

The Derby is always Hong Kong's favourite race among horse owners, well in front of the international events, and yesterday even the slightly gloomy weather conditions failed to put off a resurgence in its popularity with the public.

The attendance figure of 46,566 was almost 7,000 up on last year's Derby day and betting turnover was up HK$54 million despite the tribulations at the start of the second race.