Golden Sixty and Vincent Ho announced themselves as one of world racing’s most influential new power couples with a stunning success in the BMW Hong Kong Derby on Sunday (March 22).
Hong Kong’s most famous race was played out to empty Sha Tin grandstands as fears about a second wave of COVID-19 infections reduced the Sha Tin crowd to under 1000 rather than the average 60,000 plus.
But the betting public gathered behind Hong Kong’s brightest new star in their droves, sending Francis Lui’s gelding off at 1.7 in a maximum field of 14, and Golden Sixty justified their faith with a withering straight run to beat the ex-Irish 289-1 shot Playa Del Puente by a neck to become only the second horse to capture all three legs of Hong Kong’s four-year-old Classic Series.
“I think I can sleep well tonight,” joked the 29-year-old Ho. “There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but it’s such an amazing feeling to win my first Derby on a horse who I love so much.”
Ho had long stressed that he needed to capture a major to confirm the impressive progress he has made at home and abroad in the last two years, and victory made him the first homegrown Hong Kong rider to land the Derby since local legend Tony Cruz in 1995.
But victory was only gained in the very last strides after star Aussie rider Blake Shinn made a daring mid-race move which threatened to blow the £2m contest apart and the hopes of all Golden Sixty followers with it.
An uneven gallop has been the norm in recent HK Derbies, and this renewal was no exception, with Joao Moreira taking the field along through early splits of 25.05s and 23.93s aboard Champion’s Way before slowing the pace appreciably as the field approached the sweeping final bend.
Ho employed his usual patient tactics on Golden Sixty, who was settled towards the rear from stall nine. Still, the complexion of the race changed completely when Shinn swooped from last to first and sent the former Michael Halford-trained Playa Del Puente into a clear lead.
Golden Sixty was around eight lengths behind on the home turn and still had half that margin to make up as he ranged upsides stablemate and main market rival More Than This with just over 200m to run.
Playa Del Puente refused to give in when challenged, running on strongly to finish three lengths clear of the remainder. Still, Golden Sixty sustained his acceleration right to the line, uncoiling a scintillating final 400m split of 21.83 to take his record to ten wins from eleven starts for a hugely popular hometown success.
“Words can’t describe this, to be honest,” added Ho. “I don’t mind whether the tempo is fast or slow as long as my horse is relaxed. I knew I had to wait until the last minute to produce his turn of foot. Each race we’ve been teaching him to relax, and he also has a good fighting heart right to the end.”
Shinn wore a rueful expression as he returned to the weighing room after coming within an ace of pulling off one of the celebrated Derby boil-overs on Playa Del Puente, who won three of his four starts for Halford, and veteran winning trainer Francis Lui admitted that he thought the prize had slipped away.
“I felt excitement and panic when the pace slowed on the bend,” he said. “Vincent knows him so well. It all depends on how he recovers from this race, but I have entered him for the G1 races over a mile and 2000m on Champions Day.
Ho will be in the plate whichever option is chosen and had a message for all those watching as he savoured by far the biggest day of his burgeoning career.
“Hong Kong and the whole world are going through tough times, but I hope this helps inspire most of the people when they see that me and Golden Sixty never give up,” he said.
“Health is very important, so I hope everyone looks after themselves well and goes through this tough time with Hong Kong spirit, which Hong Kong people can always do.”
With a Classic success over 2000m behind him, Golden Sixty may well move back in distance this spring, and a clash with Hong Kong’s elite milers Beauty Generation and Waikuku in the FWD Champions Mile on April 26th would provide a perfect guide to how he matches up to the very best older horses around.
Time will tell whether the increasingly precarious situation in world racing will result in a boost to the number of international travellers making their way to Sha Tin for three G1 contests worth a combined total of around £5m next month.
But the 2020 Derby showed that Hong Kong racing has not one but two new stars. And, with reasonable luck, the ‘Golden’ couple promise to make headlines in Hong Kong long after the latest lockdown situation starts to ease.