Golden Sixty awaits as Sky Darci enhances the Hong Kong Derby form

Sky Darci returns to scale after his Hong Kong Derby win

Caspar Fownes is looking ahead to a big-race campaign for Sky Darci (Darci Brahma) next season when his talented four-year old will have the chance to take on Golden Sixty (Medaglia D’Oro) in what would be a desirable clash between the last two Hong Kong Derby (Listed, 2000m) winners, possibly in December’s Hong Kong Mile (Gr 1, 1600m).

“I’m not afraid of taking on any horse. We’ve beaten the champs when they were in theirprime with our horses before, so why not go out and knock another champion off, that’s whatwe’re here to do,” Fownes told Asia Bloodstock News in the wake of reports suggesting he might plot a campaign next term that would see his stable hero swerve Hong Kong’s current superstar.

“No, not at all,” he continued. “It’s just that Sky Darci’s the type of horse that I can train differently and I can sprint him, that’s all. It depends on which way I want to go and I’ll make that decision early next season. It depends on his rating and we’ll see what is around but there’s every chance he’ll start off in the Premier Bowl over 1200 metres.

“With another six months under his belt, he’s not going to be too far away. Joao (Moreira) feels he’s an international horse, he believes he can fight with the champ. We’ll train him the way that’s best suited to get a winning result, whether that’s the 1200 or the mile: probably the mile the way things are going but we’ll train him according to the programme and take it each race at a time.”

Sky Darci’s victory in last Sunday’s Lion Rock Trophy Handicap (Gr 3, 1600m), in which he held off Derby fifth and Classic Cup (Listed, 1800m) winner Healthy Happy (Zoustar), pushed the Derby form back into the spotlight just an hour or so before Shahryar (Deep Impact) took the Japanese equivalent with a thrilling late rush that denied Efforia (Epiphaneia) a triple crown shot, and six days out from the English original.

Every major Derby, be it at Epsom, Fuchu or Sha Tin, is pored over. The form gurus and the casual observers alike will scrutinise the outcome as soon as the winner has passed the post, such is a Derby’s importance to the industry and its fascinating status as a barometer of any given Classic generation’s quality. The rash observers will readily form fixed opinions while the wise will wait to see how the contenders stack up in future assignments before declaring the crop good, bad or somewhere in between.

Hong Kong’s racing has not had much depth to its quality this season as the old stagers have declined and the younger replacements have been slow to emerge, but Sky Darci and Healthy Happy leading home their elders provided the second positive outcome for Hong Kong’s Classic Series form in the space of seven days, following Derby third Panfield’s (Lookin’ At Lucky) Champions & Chater Cup (Gr 1, 2400m) win in open grade.

“They say every year that they’re no good,” Fownes continued. “I think we’ll see some good horses come out of our Derby this year. The best of the four-year-olds, two or three of them will get a 115 rating and above, which is pretty good.

You can’t complain about that.” On the flip side, Sky Darci and Healthy Happy carried light imposts under handicap conditions, with the Derby winner in receipt of a helpful 18lb from top-weight Ka Ying Star (Cityscape), who finished sixth in the small field of seven. And, while Panfield’s trainer Tony Millard echoed Fownes’ take on the Derby form, he also acknowledged the landscape in which the current four-year-olds find themselves.

“The four-year-olds are looking pretty good,” Millard noted. “Saying that, we have a huge amount of older horses that are past their best, but still, these horses have stepped up. It’s not like last year when they had the one horse and the rest were pretty ordinary. It’s a bit refreshing that we have at least two of them that are OK.

The 2020 Hong Kong Derby was all about Golden Sixty, who has gone on to rattle off a further seven wins without defeat, including four that carry Group 1 designation. Francis Lui’s champion was rested after the Derby for the remainder of that season, so by the end of May last year, ten Derby horses had raced a further 19 times for no win, while this year at the same juncture, 11 Derby runners out of the 2021 edition have posted two wins from 17 subsequent starts.

While Golden Sixty has marched on imperiously, the 2020 Derby also-rans have to date notched only seven wins between them from 128 attempts, although Columbus County (Redwood) and More Than This (Dutch Art) both have managed Group 1 placings. Golden Sixty’s rider Vincent Ho respects Sky Darci and his peers but nonetheless maintains a firm faith in his mount who, unlike the rising generation, is proven in set-weight Group 1 races against international opposition.

“If these four-year-olds mature more they’ll be competitive next season,” Ho said. “Some nice horses like Sky Darci are coming out of this year’s Derby but we’ll still have to see how they get om when they come to set weights and compete with the big boys because that’s a different story.”

Ho is pleased that Golden Sixty is safely in his stable resting ahead of next season, with connections having opted not to attempt to complete the Hong Kong Triple Crown in the Champions & Chater Cup. That would have entailed stretching well beyond the gelding’s optimum distance, having landed the first two legs, the Stewards’ Cup (Gr 1, 1600m) and Hong Kong Gold Cup (Gr 1, 2000m) prior to his win in the Champions Mile at the end of April.

“It’s challenging going from the Champions Mile up to a mile and a half within a month, and it’s not like we had planned it out from early this season; he’d already had seven runs, and the last couple of races were a bit tough. He recovered really fast from the Champions Mile last time but before that, the Gold Cup over 2000 metres, it took him about a week to get back to normal,” Ho added.

Millard knows the difficulty of trying to win the Triple Crown, which has only been accomplished once, by River Verdon in 1994. Panfield was the South African’s first Champions & Chater Cup success but he had attempted to pull off the three-race challenge with his outstanding Hong Kong champion Ambitious Dragon (Pins) in 2012, only to see the gelding finish second in the final leg.

“Ambitious Dragon was just phenomenal and he had the stamina on his female line, whereas Golden Sixty, it’s his brilliance that got him the 2000 metres,” Millard observed.

“There’s not a hell of a lot around at the moment in that bracket that can knock you back, you’ve got has-beens and never-wases here at the 2000 metres and that’s why he’s seen the 2000 metres.

Somebody has got to win. “But I think they were clever not to go to the 2400 metres. He’d have got hammered because they didn’t mess around like they did in the Queen Mother Memorial Cup. A race like that could have done him and he might not have come back. It takes a special horse, that’s why the Triple Crown hasn’t been won for so long.”

By missing the Champions & Chater Cup, Ho hopes he will have a horse to go to war with on the international scene next season, quarantine and travel regulations permitting.

“We’re actually looking for overseas races next season and I also discussed this with Francis because if we want to race him, we’d better have time off now and plan for next season, select some races and see which one suits him. I think it will be good for him to travel,” the jockey said.

Fownes, as ever, would like to test Sky Darci on foreign tracks too but is not getting ahead of
himself, with Hong Kong still requiring a three week quarantine for travellers returning to the city.

“I’ve never been scared to travel,” he said, “but we live in a world where we don’t know what’s going on day to day. If it opens in the next six to 12 months without restrictions, which looks doubtful, then we can make plans. Until that happens, you have to stay put, shop around in your backyard and see what you can get.”

The last Hong Kong Derby winner to venture offshore was the 2016 victor Werther (Tavistock) who went close in the 2018 Takarazuka Kinen (Gr 1, 2200m) at Hanshin. But a combination of the Hong Kong Jockey Club being keen to see its best horses remain at home and protect the ratings of its own major races, and the preferences of owners often fearful of past failures, meant that those excursions were tempered.

Even before Covid-19, the city’s recent champions Beauty Generation (Road To Rock) and Exultant (Teofilo) were grounded. Once restrictions do lift, Hong Kong’s horses will probably be free to go to Dubai and Japan, even Australia and Britain, and rattle a few cages again. And that would be the best possible advert for the merits of Hong Kong’s Derby form.

-ANZ Bloodstock News


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