VINCENT PRIMED FOR GOLDEN DERBY DAY
The starstruck teenager who asked Christophe Soumillon for an autograph while on gopher duty in the Happy Valley weighing room in 2008 is primed to strike a historic blow for Hong Kong's home-grown heroes.
But don't expect any Dettori-style displays of extravagant emotion if Vincent Ho and Golden Sixty capture Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby.
Modesty is a core topic at the HKJC Apprentice School and any rare graduates who don't leave humble tend to acquire that quality soon enough once they start losing good rides to high-profile international rivals.
Ho has come a long way since his evening fetching towels for the stars and has been aboard the Francis Lui-trained Golden Sixty through a twelve-month run hallmarked by nine wins from ten starts and a potent turn of foot that has left the best four-year-olds in town trailing.
That acceleration was evident from Golden Sixty’s very first racecourse appearance, when he rattled off the fastest closing 2f split of the day (22.34s) in a Class 4 handicap.
It proved decisive when the elegant Medaglia d’Oro gelding mastered stablemate More Than This and Champion’s Way in the Classic Mile in January and settled things yet again when Golden Sixty zipped between the same pair on his 9f debut in the Classic Cup last month.
The poise Ho showed when caught in heavy traffic between Ryan Moore and Zac Purton in the Classic Cup - which produced another rasping final quarter of 22.38s - provided a perfect snapshot of how he has matured to earn a place among Hong Kong’s finest.
And yet the vivid language the 29-year-old uses when discussing Hong Kong’s most exciting four-year-old is in marked contrast to the ‘name, rank and serial number’ style he reserves for personal achievements.
Ho describes Golden Sixty’s ability to shut a race down as “something special” and flashes a knowing smile as he talks of how his partner “gets sour and hungry” if a rival dares eyeball him.
By contrast, inquiries about his contribution are dominated by the “need to work hard” and “continue improving” in a way that belies his steely determination to run his own race on and off the track.
Few riders who end a Hong Kong season with 56 winners and a percentage of £7.5m in prize money would jet straight off for a summer stint with Mark Johnston.
Ho checked into the Braveheart Hotel for a second stay last summer and returned with Shergar Cup success and “a more open mind,” while a suspension this season provided the chance to broaden horizons further on a Monty Roberts horsemanship course in California.
Sunday’s challenge depends on Ho’s ability to deploy Golden Sixty’s acceleration again for a Derby win that would be the first by a home-grown rider in 25 years.
Tony Cruz had world-class rivals like Michael Kinane, Gary Stevens and Gerald Mosse behind when he rode the last of his four Derby winners in 1995.
Victory for Vincent wouldn’t smash a glass ceiling that has existed ever since but it would certainly dent it. And, though selfies have usurped autographs since that nervous night at the Valley, who knows what that might mean for any kids on gopher duty this weekend?
HONG KONG BUBBLE INTACT AS DERBY DAY BECKONS
One glance at the arrangements for Sunday's Derby provides a stark reminder of how seriously the HKJC is taking the threat of coronavirus.
Medical masks and temperature checks have been staples since racing went into lockdown on January 27th and owners who attend on Sunday will have to sign a Health Declaration stating that they haven't travelled outside Hong Kong in the last 14 days or been in contact with anyone who has displayed symptoms.
"There is no question that this is a Derby week like no other," said HKJC CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. "We have created a bubble which we need to keep intact and the fact that one of our true flagship events is going ahead is testament to all the measures put in place since this latest challenge surfaced almost two months ago."
VAGNER OFF THE MARK AS ORANGE PROVES SWEET
Hong Kong's latest Brazilian import got off the mark at Happy Valley on Wednesday when Vagner Borges starred with a stylish front-running ride on Very Sweet Orange in the Cassia Handicap.
The 26-year-old numbers 14 Group 1 winners and four championships among over 1600 winners in his homeland and, with Jamie Spencer grounded by travel issues, he is now looking forward to partnering one of Sunday's livelier Derby outsiders in Frankie Lor's Super Oasis.