If looks and previous overseas performances were everything, the John Moore-trained head-turner Ruthven would have next year’s BMW Hong Kong Derby in the bag, but on Monday the Australian import gets the chance to show his credentials on the track at Sha Tin.
With less than a month before the start of the four-year-old series, culminating with the Derby on March 18, a host of contenders have already put strong cases forward.
Irish import Exultant elevated himself to pre-post favourite in many people’s eyes with a dominant display last weekend, while Singapore Sling caught the eye on Wednesday with a Class Two win of his own at Happy Valley.
All the while, the 112-rated Nothingilikemore, winner of five from six and lauded as a future superstar from his very first start, waits in the wings for the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 21.
It is difficult to gauge the strength of a four-year-old crop after a Derby has been run, let alone before, but there seems to be an exciting amount of talent emerging this season.
So it says plenty about Ruthven’s sheer presence and the dominance of his last-start win in Australia that some judges have Moore’s expensive import ranked ahead of the rest of his class before he even runs in a race for his new stable.
Ruthven makes his local debut in the Class Two Tai Mo Shan Handicap (1,400m) at a New Year’s Day meeting where a number of other potential Derby contenders also strut their stuff.
Four of those will square off against Ruthven in the Class Two – the high-priced Lockheed (Joao Moreira), Italian purchase Patriot Hero (Umberto Rispoli), Group Three-placed Perfect To Play (Keith Yeung Ming-lun) and the horse Ruthven beat into second in the Queensland Derby, Cheerful Giggles (Brett Prebble).
“Beat” is probably too light a term for the thrashing Ruthven gave his rivals over 2,200m at Doomben in June and it was surprising Moore was even able to source the good-looking son of Domesday for owner Albert Hung Chao-hong.
Hung owned last season’s all-conquering Derby hero Rapper Dragon, who swept through the 2017 four-year-old series before tragically dying from injuries sustained in the Champions Mile.
Rapper Dragon was awarded Horse of the Year posthumously and his death not only left a void in Moore’s stable but in Hong Kong racing as a whole – so Ruthven has big shoes to fill.
Like the Britannia Stakes and Tercentenary Stakes at Royal Ascot, the Queensland Derby has become something of a go-to race for permit owners since 2016 Derby winner and 2015-16 Horse of the Year Werther was bought after his second at Doomben in 2015.
Of course, the punters on the terraces at Sha Tin on Monday won’t care about Ruthven’s Hong Kong Derby hopes but only whether he is ready to win first-up over 1,400m, as Werther did on international day in 2015.
In two three-year-old preparations for former trainer Ciaron Maher, Ruthven raced below 1,600m three times, beating inferior opposition at provincial tracks first time in before resuming over 1,400m at Group Two level in the spring.
Ruthven wasn’t disgraced that day, the black colt was still learning his craft and finished fifth in a race where the leader Oak Door dictated from in front at Caulfield.
Blinkers later switched Ruthven on, first when second in the South Australia Derby and then for the dominant last start victory – and addition of the headgear could be the key to a forward first-up display on Monday.
A lacklustre dirt trial should be ignored and instead punters should use a previous turf trial for Tommy Berry and another back straight grass gallop on Thursday as a guide to Ruthven’s readiness for his first-up assignment.
They both looked satisfactory but Ruthven faces a hot field that not only includes the aforementioned Derby-eligible rivals but also tough veteran New Asia Sunrise (Nash Rawiller) and one-time boom horse Jing Jing Win (Alberto Sanna), stepping up to 1,400m for the first time.