On the Rails

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

Ambitious Dragon's performance on Sunday set himself forward as the best winner of the race in recent times and now it is time to have all our fingers and toes crossed that he remains sound to carry that form into the future.

If he does, then he will become a leading player, perhaps even the leading player among middle-distance runners in Hong Kong - a vacant throne to some extent.

This column would rank California Memory's Gold Cup win as slightly superior to Ambitious Dragon's performance over the same course and distance. The Gold Cup track was running virtually the same as Sunday's course, so a time comparison between the Derby and Gold Cup makes interesting reading.

California Memory stopped the clock at two minutes 1.63 seconds, hurtling over the last 400m in 21.63, while the Tony Millard-trained Ambitious Dragon was just under a length faster overall but a full second slower coming down the straight.

But there is an inclination to believe the Derby winner was not stretched to his ultimate point in winning, and that could be a key point for his future.

Helene Mascot's Derby winning run in 2008 also rated highly, but it was hard fought, pushing him to the limit and may have pushed the UK import a step too far physically. He soon developed wind problems after which he lost form hopelessly and never recovered.

And the other recent Derby winners to have failed to train on have also fitted that profile.

Millard's previous victor, the 2000 Derby hero Keen Winner, got home narrowly in a torrid three-way finish that was a career peak and it was all downhill from there. Amazingly, he raced for almost three more years, racking up 29 starts after the Derby for just one second placing, and the rating he had pushed to 116 on Derby day plummeted again to 84, before he was retired as a miserable also-ran, going around as a 100-1 chance at the bottom of Class Two.

On the other side of the coin are the Derby winners who did it with some degree of comfort.

Winning margins for Viva Pataca (13/4 lengths), Vengeance Of Rain (23/4 lengths) and Collection (11/2 lengths) made a statement that they had not been bottomed out to win and that was important to their ability to take another step into open Group One races.

For whatever its Group One tag, the Derby is in fact a Class One in handicap rating terms and there is the necessity to go up another step before competing successfully in races like the QEII Cup or the international events.

In fact, Derby winners had a very poor record going to the QEII Cup until Vengeance Of Rain did the double in his year.

While Ambitious Dragon's winning margin was less than a length, there was another 33/4 lengths back to third and jockey Maxime Guyon was not required to resort to significant use of the whip to ensure victory.

If California Memory is able to reproduce his Gold Cup effort, then he would be a worthy galloper to take the baton from the likes of Viva Pataca and Collection as our top middle-distance horse, but at least Ambitious Dragon holds the promise of a Derby winner who might also step into that sort of level.

The gelding has brought a welcome change of fortune for Millard, who admitted to the media after the Derby win that his 11-year search for another high-class horse had been tough going.

And Ambitious Dragon has been the flag bearer for an above-average season for the South African overall.

Until this term, he had been regular as clockwork as a mid-table trainer, with each of his seasons yielding a win tally between 23 in his worst year and 34 in his best, a fairly narrow range from top to bottom over such a period.

With 28 wins now and still 31 meetings to go, it seems extremely likely he might break out of that channel of relative mediocrity, notwithstanding that 24 of those wins have come in Class Three and lower.

That has been the pattern - 159 of his 172 wins since the start of the 2005-06 season have come in Class Three or lower - but now he has the firepower in Ambitious Dragon, Millard can step up to be a more regular rival for the likes of big-race trainers John Moore, Tony Cruz and Caspar Fownes.