A Derby thriller that raised the bar
Designs On Rome's breathtaking duel with Able Friend a fitting climax to a great day of entertainment at the track
Another Derby is done and dusted with more an air of inevitability satisfied, and the contest itself lifting the 2014 Derby above the predictable.
The Classic Mile and Classic Cup quinellas produced thrilling finishes but, for once, the script of the four-year-old triple crown did leave the best until last.
It's hard to anticipate a greater highlight might be left in the season - watching Designs On Rome and Able Friend taking such different routes from the rear of the field, Joao Moreira slicing through between horses while Tommy Berry circled around the field, then seeing them come back together again in the final 200m, head to head and leaving nothing on the track.
The better stayer did win and, while jockeys complained post-race that there was some jamming up going around to the back of the course, that was alleviated by James McDonald, then Brett Prebble and finally Christophe Soumillon pushing forward when caught wide.
Having horses rolling forward through the middle of the race, the segment which has often been very messy in the past, helped to keep the tempo better than it usually is in the Derby and the interference down to the minimum. Luck in running had a day off as a major factor and the contest was down to the horses and riders.
And the trainers - John Moore and a very honourable mention later in this column for Michael Chang Chun-wai.
Moore celebrated his 64th birthday the day after taking the Derby quinella. We might have been sitting here writing about how Moore's time was just about up, with compulsory retirement at 65 imminent, if the Jockey Club had not moved the goalposts and made it possible for him, and others that follow, to carry on as their form warrants.
It would have been a hollow thought to be turning over in the afterglow of two more Moore superstars pushing their way into the public consciousness like that.
My younger colleagues, Michael Cox and Andrew Hawkins, get a look like they found out the sun once rose in the west when told that Moore went eight years without a Group One winner, from Makarpura Star's Gold Cup in 1996 to Tiber's 2004 Classic Mile.
It is assumed now that the major big-race trainer in town was always thus. But Moore reinvented himself a decade ago, set out with the aim of winning all the big races and pretty much has - the tally is 36 Group Ones, domestic and international, on home soil in the last 10 years, plus that Singapore win with Military Attack.
No one else has even been close to consistently finding the big-event armour that Moore assembles annually - very good for him, of course, but it's also to the credit of Hong Kong racing.
Dibayani’s trainer deserves an honourable mention
Think of the famous race finishes and there’s always one tough question. Who ran third?
Most great races revolve around an extraordinary win – think Secretariat’s Belmont or Frankel’s Queen Anne – or great duels, like Affirmed and Alydar, or Bonecrusher and Our Waverley Star.
And when it’s a great duel, like Sunday’s Derby, the legend of the two-horse war simply swallows the third placegetter whole, which would not be fair to Michael Chang and the Derby third placegetter, Dibayani.
So we want to credit them properly here, especially Chang, who had a pretty good week and a bit considering he won in Dubai with Rich Tapestry the previous Saturday.
Chang stuck his neck out by doing what he considered the right thing for his horse, not running Dibayani after the Classic Mile and having two months without a race into the Derby.
You might assume that doing the right thing by his horse to get the best result on grand final day was a trainer’s job, but the politics of it can complicate matters, especially for a trainer like Chang.
John Moore or John Size or Tony Cruz or a few others might be in a position to make whatever call they want to make without question, but a trainer without a bank of big-race wins behind him runs the risk of ridicule by taking the road less travelled.
For example, how many trainers other than Size could announce Glorious Days would run first-up for six months in the Hong Kong Mile and not be greeted with chuckles?
It would have been easier for Chang’s reputation to run with the pack and start Dibayani in the Classic Cup, against his judgment. If he didn’t fire on Derby day, well, he wasn’t good enough or had no luck or some other excuse could have been found and anyway Chang would have been in the same boat as 12 other trainers who couldn’t match Designs On Rome and Able Friend.
Not having the lead-up run meant risking a far more damaging accusation that Chang didn’t know what he was doing, had Dibayani run poorly – but he didn’t. Take away the first two acknowledged future superstars and Dibayani posted what might have been a record winning margin.
People might not remember who ran third, but they should certainly remember for the future the great job by the trainer of the third horse.
Seeing is believing
Under the heading of constructive criticism, we thought it might be time for the Jockey Club to upgrade its website video player for the benefit of customers.
Fair’s fair, the club’s website is the best racing site in the world – dear reader, if you know of one providing more information and guidance, for free, then we’d love to hear about it.
Much of that information content comes in the shape of the race, trial and trackwork replays, and there was some tinkering not so long ago with the site’s player to provide two levels of definition – standard quality and high quality. But after watching some of the key races during the Dubai carnival on YouTube, our only conclusion is that those descriptions are overstating things.
There is barely a mega pixel of difference between the SQ and HQ at the HKJC site – hardly anything to the eye, though no doubt there are technical descriptions of why one is better than the other – but watching those Dubai races on YouTube, the quality is streets ahead and we can only assume it is due to a better player.
We know the Jockey Club wouldn’t like to think it fell short of the world’s best anywhere.