Derby horses can't be judged only on the race itself

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2012, 12:00am


There is a famous story in Australian racing, going back to the 1970s, when a Sydney-based trainer renowned for betting well took a lightly-raced horse he rated very highly in private to a low-grade, four-runner Queensland provincial race, only too happy to accept whatever odds were on offer.

When his horse came in fourth, or last as some would have it, he was out of pocket, utterly dismayed and resigned to being wrong about his horse's talent. As the next years rolled by though, he was proved correct - not only did his horse win a Group One, so did all the other three.

Derbies can often be a little like maiden races - their worth is not always obvious at the time and becomes apparent as horses go on to compete with a wider general horse population. That is the case in other jurisdictions where Derby events are for three-year-olds only, and it isn't necessarily any more obvious here despite the fact classic horses are four and we should therefore have seen more of them. Or despite the fact we should at least be seeing them without a huge amount of physical development still to be made.

So the mood around town to declare the 2012 Derby substandard in advance is fraught with danger.

Granted, the handicapper's rating spread of 110 to 87 reads as a slightly lesser event than some years, as the race has most often carried figures from the mid-80s to around the 115 mark in recent runnings. But, as we have pointed out many times previously in this space, the handicapper gets to correct his mistakes next Monday after the event when things may look different again.

Based on handicap ratings, the worst Derby of the past decade was the 2006 renewal taken out by Viva Pataca, when Hello Pretty's 106 rating was enough to get him the No1 saddlecloth, the bottom rated runner was off 75 and only six runners had ratings in triple figures. Punters had it nailed as uncompetitive, with only Viva Pataca and Hello Pretty sent out under double-figure odds, yet from the race emerged two of our best, most durable Group One stars, the winner and eighth-placed Good Ba Ba.

The 2004 Derby is the prime piece of evidence that high ratings going in will translate to high ratings ahead - already a Hong Kong Mile winner, 2004 Derby hero Lucky Owners carried a towering 129 rating into the classic, and 96 was required to make the field.

That did prove a high quality edition, with future Group winners unplaced like The Duke, Perfect Partner, Ain't Here, Saturn and Industrial Success.

Yet the 2001 Derby demanded a minimum rating of 100 to make the cut, with Charming City the top-rater on 120, which should have meant a great contest on the basis of ratings. While the winner, Industrial Pioneer, took out a Gold Cup later and Charming City won a Chairman's Sprint Prize, most of the runners never won another race at all, which highlights another way of viewing the race from a ratings point of view - perhaps they had spent all they had in them getting to those ratings pre-Derby and it was all downhill from there.

The horse that chiefly lifted the ratings profile of the 2007 Derby, a 120-96 spread, was Floral Pegasus and he was a case in point. He had won nine of his 16 race starts and got to a rating of 120 before Vital King ran him down on the line to win the Derby for Brett Prebble and Paul O'Sullivan, but that was the beginning of the end.

Eventually, he had injury issues that prevented him showing his best but Floral Pegasus raced for 18 months after his Derby second without being about to win another race. In fact, the only horse from that Derby to distinguish himself at all subsequently was Able One and only one or two won another race.

So, while 110-87 might not read as sexy as some runnings of the Mercedes-benz Hong Kong Derby, it's worth remembering that the race, however sought-after by owners and however it is perceived by fans, is not the be-all and end-all of achievement.

That comes when the Derby graduates go out into the wider world taking on all-comers, not only their own age, in the domestic Group Ones and on the international stage, and that is the standard by which the class of 2012 must be judged.