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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

How will the 2019 Derby stack up?

The 2019 BMW HK Derby field went into the race with something to prove and emerged from it the same way.

Of course, there was a winner and the usual tributes to the winning jockey and trainer and the just as common brickbats for the beaten.

'Twas ever thus and we wouldn't have it any other way - the foundation stone of horse racing, for the fans and punters at least, remains the questions that either were not answered by the race or were posed anew by it. Those are the things we take forward.

In terms of a rating for the winner, I found it to be one of the lesser recent Derbys. The winner rated higher than Fay Fay in 2012 and Akeed Mofeed in 2013 but there was a significant difference between the 2019 edition and those two wins.

Fay Fay's win in 2:04.41s stands as a monument to very slowly-run races - in the 20-year history of the 2000m HK Derby only Viva Pataca (2:04.6) and Vengeance Of Rain (2:04.3) ran times in the same ball park, both on rain-affected ground and it was seriously rain-affected in the case of Viva Pataca.

Fay Fay's slow win in a messy, interference-riddled race with less than 4 lengths across the first 10 finishers, was the Derby low point.

That's not to denigrate Fay Fay - he actually carried a 96 rating peak into the race but any figure for the win itself was savagely chewed up by the way the race played out.

Likewise, Akeed Mofeed carried a 94 rating into the Derby the following year but won a stop-start race, despite overracing, with plenty of interference behind him and just over 4 lengths across the first 10 home.

What stood out on Sunday in the classic was that those mitigating circumstances did not exist.

Dark Dream covered ground, Red Warrior and especially Ho Ho Khan were held up for clear running in the straight, but the race was otherwise cleanly fought. The sectionals showed the race was just under 2 lengths faster than expected out of the gates, dropped back to 4 lengths slow in the second 400m, picked up again from the 1200m to the 800m then the leaders put the foot down around that corner to run the fourth section more than 3 lengths fast and that was the decisive moment in the race.

Any horse unable to go with the flow of the race at that stage and press forward was in trouble and that was where things really went wrong for Waikuku.

Bowman was able to come out three wide with Furore to get the back of Dark Dream, Ryan Moore was looking to hold the back of Furore with Enrichment and Moreira looked to rev up Waikuku from the tail of the field to tack on to the back of the pack and make up several lengths so he could be tracking forward on the back of Enrichment. The problems with that were twofold - he was having to make up the ground in the quickest part of the race just to get the trail behind Enrichment and Moore didn't have a horse anyway. So what energy he spent accelerating to catch the back of Enrichment didn't get Waikuku into the race as his stablemate was falling off the three wide train. By the time he got around Enrichment in the straight, the game was gone and he was left with five lengths between himself and Furore and pulled it back to just over one.

Bowman fans, and there are justifiably many, will read that and say that it was Hughy's ride vis a vis Moreira's which caused that situation to come about and thus won the race and in the specific circumstances of the race, that was right.

But I once heard a comment from retired top US jockey, Richard Migliore, working as a television commentator at a major meeting there, that jockeys receive too much credit for the winning rides and too much criticism for the losing ones and it's a smart, objective observation that was relevant to the Derby on Sunday.

Hughy's ride was brilliant in that it came off.

The move forward he made very early in the race to find a two wide spot certainly won the Derby but it's a move that comes off probably 4 times in 10, at best, from a wide gate at that 2000m start. From a much lower draw, Zac Purton tried to do something similar on Dark Dream one position further back in the wide line but didn't get in. His move, like Bowman's, was a roll of the tactical dice and one rolled a winner, one didn't. Likewise, Moreira actually appeared to come out of the gates with an open mind and a possible "slot forward" ride of his own but he also had 13 horses under him, including the one horse that got to the slot first - Furore. At that point, he had only two options, keep going all the way forward and risk continuing to work hard just to be stuck outside faster horses in the lead, Ka Ying Star and Mission Tycoon, or go back. So he did the right thing and went back to save his chips for a later hand. Had Enrichment been able to bring him into the race at the 800m, there would have been a different post-race narrative to the rides, but he didn't, the rest is in the result. Every horse race, every day is subject to the same elements of luck from the moment the draw is made to the decisions made during the race by all riders.

If Moreira could have his time over and do something different, it might be to tack on to the pelleton earlier, before the pace switched up, but he still would have had the unexpected speed bump of Enrichment ahead of him. In any pre-race assessment, he would surely expect Enrichment to have taken him further.

So the result is in the book, and it was a ninth HK Derby for New Zealand-breds since the race went to the current 2000m format in 2000. Four have been Irish-bred or British-bred and the remaining three Australian-breds. Or 12-8 for southern hemisphere-breds in that time.

But who emerges from the race with a future in A grade? For all of the hype, the Derby is an age-restricted race - like Derbies the world over - that often falls short of the calibre of open Group One races. The theoretical expectation is that, as these horses reach full maturity and their elders retire or decline, these will be the ones to ascend to hold the top spots.

In 2019, the race itself, as noted earlier, fell short even of past Derbies and without the considerations of pace and interference that dragged them down. It did have that feel to it pre-race and nothing changed in the event itself, with many of the runners looking genuine Class 2 horses rather than future Group performers.

On the positive side, the winner, runner-up and unlucky Dark Dream can do figures on my scale which are more in keeping with genuine Group racing, and getting towards Group One racing for the first two home. They will get a chance to show their worth in the Champions' Day features but they will have to lift on their Derby numbers to win there.

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