Hong Kong is already a place that can turn pedigree on its head and makes the study of previous overseas performances seem pointless, but throw a dose of “Derby fever” into the mix and a horse can soon be headed for the wrong races.
There are nearly three months before the 2018 BMW Hong Kong Derby is run – it is the race every owner, trainer and jockey wants to win most though, and is already at the forefront of many people’s minds.
“Derby fever” has people paying tens of millions for stayers in a jurisdiction dominated by sprint and mile racing and furthermore, the best miler often wins even the Derby anyway.
After 2018 Derby-eligible import Dances With Dragon made an eye-catching debut over 1,000m on Saturday, charging home for third behind classy sprinter Hot King Prawn, trainer Chris So Wai-yin felt a sense of déjà vu.
Dances With Dragon raced as Hall of Fame in New Zealand and although primarily a sprinter, was a two-time stakes winner at 1,600m, including the 2017 Group One Levin Classic.
Then there is the pedigree, by Savabeel out of a Galileo mare, bloodlines that suggest more ground – not less – would be beneficial, as the gelding gets older.
It’s just that Hong Kong racing has a nasty habit of screwing up your pedigree page into a ball and tossing it in the bin.
“I don’t know what it is, you bring a horse here and they can look like one thing and turn out to be another,” So said. “This horse had only raced at 1,200m and further but when we saw the way he trialled up the straight we thought we had to have a try at 1,000m.”
Now the trainer must balance the expectations of owners – who probably expected a Derby horse – and the reality the horse they have may be a sprinter.
“We can let the horse tell us, step-by-step. You see it many times, where people want to push, especially with a four-year-old and wanting to run in the Derby. Luckily this horse’s owners are easy-going owners and understand,” So said.
Not all owners are as understanding and So has faced a similar situation with an import before.
In his rookie season, So had a talent on his hands with Redkirk Warrior – a horse with 2,000m form for William Haggas in England and earmarked for the Derby.
The trouble was Redkirk Warrior possessed a sharpness the trainer recognised could make the horse a potential top-line sprinter.
Redkirk Warrior went within a whisker of winning the Hong Kong Classic Cup – class can carry a horse a long way against his own age group – and then failed as favourite in the Hong Kong Derby a month later.
The gelding’s racing future revealed why Redkirk Warrior didn’t show much when stretched to 2,000m. After suffering feet problems, he was sent to Australia and was resurrected as the sprinter he was always “meant” to be – winning the 2017 Newmarket Handicap for David Hayes.
Redkirk Warrior isn’t the only Hong Kong Derby failure to go on and win a Group One sprint; on the local front speedsters Little Bridge, Cape Of Good Hope and Green Birdie all ran in the 2,000m classic before later winning at top level.
Then there was Rich Tapestry – he didn’t even get to the Derby distance before Michael Chang Chun-wai realised it was a pointless task pushing him. Rich Tapestry was then reinvented as a sprinter – winning a Grade One on dirt in the United States of all things.
It was two years ago, nearly to the day, that Thewizardofoz smashed his Class Two rivals over 1,400m to confirm his Derby favouritism. Despite The Wizard’s early brilliance everything screamed Derby – he was by Redoute’s Choice and out of top New Zealand mare, Princess Coup, who placed in a Caulfield Cup.
To be fair, Thewizardofoz has been confounding us ever since but one thing we did find out at his next start was that he didn’t get a mile, let alone a mile-and-a-quarter.
Now Size has two of his star four-year-olds, Nothingilikemore and Beat The Clock, neither of which looks like a stayer by pedigree or performance, on a collision course with the four-year-old series.
The difference could be that Size might just be the only trainer with enough clout to say “no” to an owner afflicted with “Derby fever”.