Rating the HK Derby - it isn't just about the maths
Updated: Mar 20
The highest-rated Hong Kong Derby winner since the turn of the century was Lucky Owners (pictured), with a 129 figure from the handicapper and he was probably entitled to that as he had already won the Hong Kong Mile on the way.
But did that make it a great Derby? The winner had one more run before being sold to stud in Australia and the rest of the field raced another 313 times for 18 wins, with HK Mile winner The Duke and HK Gold Cup winner Perfect Partner the highest achievers.
It's hard to compare one Derby with another, even from a numbers angle, as it is a race that is constantly evolving and so are the runners. The 2012 winner Fay Fay, never won another race, the runner up Same World was handy at a Group 3 level and third-placed Sweet Orange soon succumbed to injury, but the race also turned up Group 1 achievers Military Attack, Dan Excel, Dominant and Liberator amongst the unplaced.
This year, only three of the runners - Golden Sixty, More Than This and Champion's Way - will carry a triple figure handicap rating into the Hong Kong Derby and it's 20 years since a horse won the race with anything less.
But since the 1999 winner, Ivan Allan-trained 100-1 chance Holy Grail, only two winners, Lucky Owners and Super Satin, had more than 10 starts in Hong Kong beforehand, so that would knock out 12-start Champion's Way as well.
And then there were two: news to put a smile on the trainer of both Golden Sixty and More Than This, Francis Lui.
At first glance, the table here suggests the race has lost quality in the past 20 years, with a decline in the number of 100+ rated runners and a contraction in the average rating for the field too, with 2020 right at the bottom end of the numbers.
In the 2001 Derby, only one runner turned up with a rating under 100, and that horse held a mark of 96 that would put him in the top handful of runners in the event in most recent seasons.
But what that is really speaking to, in part, is a change in the handicap landscape when Nigel Gray took over in late 2006 from previous handicapper Ciaran Kennelly.
Twenty years ago, there was a serious divide between the what a horse's rating meant in local racing and what it meant in racing at a higher level, especially internationally.
For example, the winner of the Derby in 1998, Johan Cryuff arrived in Hong Kong with a rating of 103, won a couple of races in the lead-up and went to post in the Derby as a short-priced favourite and rated 138 - six points higher than Silent Witness at his peak and the equal of Able Friend at his.
That towering number should have pointed to a hugely-successful career in the Group 1 races but, although he ran very well in a number of Group 1s afterwards, Johan Cruyff had 12 more starts without a win.
Which just underlines what a different time it was - tried horses came into Hong Kong frequently with triple figure ratings, a level never seen any more. The overall higher established standards in Hong Kong now mean that the handicapper will discount a horse's overseas rating - often brutally - if they are imported with Group form from another jurisdiction. The Caulfield Guineas winner Kenwood Melody arrived here rated 109 in 1999 but, in the current season, the ill-fated former Victoria Derby winner Extra Brut was assigned a mark of 93.
So, the ratings carried into and out of the Derby now look a more reasonable assessment of the established form level and where it slots into the real world, pre and post, than it did two decades ago. And that is not a criticism of Kennelly - or perhaps even an observation of anything but timing. Since Gray took the seat, Hong Kong horses have had more exposure of the regular Hong Kong form to overseas form, home and away, and we all have a better handle on it all.
And what has also changed, and contributed to a lower Derby rating base than previously, has been the experience of runners. You might say that the the imports overall have had more juice in the lemon upon arrival and, often, have not been squeezed immediately on landing.
The red line shows only previously-raced horses (PPs) competing in the Derby and a lowering trend of how many starts they've had, on average, before being imported to Hong Kong.
So, most of those horses have had less of a chance to be wrung dry somewhere else to get to a high rating for sale that they cannot sustain when imported. We still see this in individual animals but there has been a general decline in it.
And the blue line shows the average number of local starts Derby runners have had on their way to the race.
This part of the graph also trends down, but has bigger troughs and peaks, of course, because it also includes PPGs - horses which arrived unraced. Hong Kong has been their entire career and they have needed to race more often than PPs to reach the level required to make the Derby field, although they may have done that over more than one season. A high PPG content in the Derby field - represented at the top end by Champion's Way and Golden Sixty this year - and there is a spike in the number of local races run.
Overwhelmingly, the Derby has been dominated by the PPs, though - since 2000, Keen Winner, Lucky Owners, Ambitious Dragon, Fay Fay and Luger started their careers in Hong Kong, the rest all raced overseas.
So is this a strong Derby or a weak one? The unsatisfying answer is who knows until later?
Akeed Mofeed, with just 5 runs overseas and 3 in Hong Kong, won the worst Derby in 2013 if you judge it by handicap ratings - he topped the list that year with just a 102 figure. Arguably, it turned out better than many editions, with both Akeed Mofeed and Gold-Fun proving worthy international competitors.
Time will tell whether what happens on Sunday is about the future or the past.