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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Gangnant! Winners aplenty in a favourite's Derby

The 2020 HK Derby is done and what we are left to take away from a thrilling renewal is the true arrival of Vincent Ho, a win for the nice guys and career peak for trainer Francis Lui and a gut-wrenching ride of the year by Blake Shinn that almost produced the biggest upset in the race's modern history.

The victory by Ho should not be underestimated for a moment, not just for a man who has been a late-blooming talent in the saddle but as one more boost for local riders.

In the last decade, we've had Matthew Chadwick and Derek Leung win international races in Hong Kong, Alex lai won a Sprinters Stakes in Japan and Ho's Derby win was the first for a Chinese jockey since 1986.

It is now 9 years since Ho was the champion apprentice, coming through just one season behind Chadwick, Leung and Keith Yeung.

It is not unfair to say that, there was no point in most of those 9 years that he would have been ranked as the top of that group, although he was still doing well enough to be driving around in a bright yellow Porsche with a "GAGNANT" personalised number plate. French for winner.

But Ho has matured brilliantly in the last two years, assisted by time spent during summer off-seasons having working holidays in France and Great Britain, and unquestionably heads those other riders in the local pecking order now.

And the Derby - and Golden Sixty - came along at the right time to provide one of those tests that stamps a rider's card as having fully arrived - a big name horse in a big name race with short odds and high

expectation. Now, most jockeys are realistic enough to admit they would rather go into a major race on the odds-on favourite than an underdog, just because having the talent under them makes winning more likely than trying to conjure something magical from a lesser light, but there is still pressure to perform and getting beaten is more likely to see fingers of blame pointed at the rider than the horse or trainer.

Mission accomplished.

The knee jerk reaction after a jockey wins is for all and sundry to wax lyrical about a great ride but what Ho produced that was vital was cool. Cool, born of the close association he has had with this horse's entire career, cool born of knowing what he expected to get when he asked.

That cool manifested itself in two ways. First, resisting the temptation to do anything but go back at the start and do the main thing that would lead to victory - relax the horse. Forget about jockeying for position or responding to the pace, as it was expected or as it happened. Rightly, Ho took the view that he was on the best animal and his main task, as one great American trainer used to instruct his riders, was "don't impede the horse." He got him as switched off as Golden Sixty gets.

The second dose of cool dealing with what some described as a crisis around the final turn but what was really more a mild annoyance, trucking up wide with cover behind Super Oasis and Columbus County then finding that they weren't going to take him any further. Ho angled left then pressed and Golden Sixty set out after Playa del Puente, 5 lengths ahead.

For me, there was only one moment when Golden Sixty looked in danger, at the 200m, when the margin was down to 3 lengths but still significant. And that's where the merit in the performances of first and second came from. Playa del Puente was not falling in a hole as might have been expected - and maybe Ho's cool came from that expectation too - but Golden Sixty was sustaining his run, getting further ahead of the horses behind him right to the line.

So where does this Derby winner fit into Derby history?

Well, the short answer is probably right where it should be. Not low, nor standing out at the high end. The winner's 95 figure on Winning Factor ratings was good enough, it did not stand out in either direction. Pre-race it looked a thin event with few chances and quite a big part of the race populated by horses we know are not going on to careers in Group racing. Most will be Class 2 horses for the future.

One of the factors that impacted how our ratings assessed this race and how it played out in reality was the big anchor drop from Champion's Way in the lead between the 1200m and 800m down the back. Our heat map shows the first part of the race was a little quicker than average, with Champion's Way fired up and wanting to fight Joao Moreira to go faster. When Moreira stepped on the brakes to demand compliance, that's the section here where the tempo slowed to 5 lengths slower than expected.

That sudden slowing by that much does hurt the overall time and ultimately how highly the race rates. And, with Playa del Puente already too keen for his own good under Blake Shinn at the rear, it was also the moment the Australian rider timed his run perfectly to let the horse have his head and sweep around the field while everyone in front of him was restraining. So he got around quickly, then did the right thing by not easing up.

It was a brilliant ride on a horse at 289-1 and given virtually no chance, though, interestingly, it was the same shape of race for Playa del Puente as the one he won at Happy Valley, even if it looked different there as he was in front.

The ride was deserving of a better fate and the break down of the times for each horse shows there was also plenty of credit for the horse too, as Playa del Puente was good enough to keep up the gallop.

Quite likely, after a big move which was almost 5 lengths faster than average from the 800m to the 400m, he might have been expected to hit a wall and weaken in the final 150m but he didn't.

As you see here, his final 400m sectional was only half a length off average and was faster than two thirds of the field. Ignore the winner for a moment - at the 200m, Playa del Puente was three and a half lengths ahead of More Than This and the margin between them was still almost three lengths on the line. Golden Sixty may well revert to mile racing - although he was strong here - but Playa del Puente's effort shouldn't be underrated for the future over middle distances.

The win was a highlight for Francis Lui, whose only Group One win came with Lucky Bubbles and he won't be too concerned that the Derby no longer carries a Group One label.

Regardless of the higher international profile of international racing, the Derby is still the favourite of Hong Kong fans and owners and the biggest feather in any trainer's cap short of preparing an all time great. And, at this stage, there is still room for Golden Sixty to become one of those.

Although a 95 rating does not stand him out for us amongst recent Derby winners, he has now won 10 of 11 starts - which always suggests there is more to come - and his past five races have produced ratings with us of 94,93,96,94 and 95.

One of the fundamental tenets of rating horses and putting a number on their performances is that a horse capable of continually reproducing a certain figure over and over, or reproducing figures within a very tight band of ratings like this, is that a day that will come when they go a level higher.

Where Golden Sixty rates now will make him competitive in open Group One races, even if he ranks behind the best of Beauty Generation or Waikuku or Exultant, but if that day comes and he goes a level higher then that would put him into the zone that only champions occupy.

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