Neil Callan hopes Columbus County can spring a surprise and tick another box on the rider’s CV by striking gold in the BMW Hong Kong Derby 2020 at Sha Tin on Sunday.
Having come within a length and a half of causing an upset on the John Moore-trained 80-1 chance Sunny Speed in the feature 12 months ago, the 41-year-old teams up with Columbus County for the first time.
Despite the Caspar Fownes-trained four-year-old needing to find a bit on ratings, the Group One-winning rider believes he is capable of being in the mix from a good draw in stall three.
Callan said: “I gave Columbus County a little canter around the track on Friday and he felt fit and healthy and looks good.
“On ratings with the top three he has got a bit to find and though Golden Sixty is the one to beat, it isn’t the strongest year and he has a good draw in stall three.
“I’d be very happy if we finished fourth or fifth, but I finished a close third on a big outsider last year, so just because we will be a big price doesn’t mean it isn’t doable, so hopefully he can go two places better.”
Giving Callan further cause for optimism is the fact he knows Columbus County will stay every yard of the trip, having finished second over 10 furlongs last time out.
He said: “Columbus County is a very laid-back character and he stays very well – getting the distance can be a question for some Derby runners.
“He is adaptable to any situation, whether the race becomes messy or tactical, and if we did get any rain, it would make it very interesting as he would relish it.
“His form has been pretty consistent – things have got to go right to trouble the top three, but he is improving and lightly raced.”
While other countries are facing weeks with no racing at all due to the coronavirus pandemic, the father of four has praised the Hong Kong Jockey Club for keeping the show on the road, given the proximity to what was the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, China.
He said: “I think at the moment we are quite lucky to be racing considering where we are in relation to Wuhan, as we are almost on the doorstep and you would think this is the last place you would want to be.
“The Hong Kong Jockey Club has done an amazing job keeping everyone calm and getting everyone back into action again.
“With how it has turned into a worldwide pandemic and with so many sports off, we have to count ourselves lucky that the Hong Kong Jockey Club has put so much effort in to keep us securely in our bubble.”
Though only a few hundred will be in attendance at Sha Tin at a meeting which usually draws a crowd closer to six figures, Callan admits that while the atmosphere will feel different, it will have no impact on the racing.
He said: “As soon as it started getting out of hand, the Hong Kong Jockey Club put restrictions on racing fans coming in. It came to the point where just trainers, jockeys and key racing personnel were allowed in.
“To start with it was quite eerie as Happy Valley is pretty buzzing and the people there are so passionate about the sport, so it took a couple of meetings to get used to it.
“Derby day will be different though, as usually there is around 100,000 in the stands and this time there will be less than 600, but the fact they have something like this to watch at home when most people are on lockdown gives them something to look forward to.”
Callan can look forward to regular rides over the coming weeks and hopes racing in Britain, which is on shutdown until the end of April, will resume sooner rather than later to help lessen the impact on his former weighing-room colleagues.
He said: “It has been a great experience out here and being able to spend the time with the family has been important, as racing back in England, I would get to see them for an hour before racing and that would be it.
“As situations go though, I do feel for the lads back home who won’t be racing for the next few weeks, as although they are going to spend time with their families, they are not going to be able to get those riding fees they need to support them.
“Luckily for us we have been able to carry on and hopefully British racing can get back up and running again soon.”
There is a handful of ex-British and Irish runners in the field, with last year’s Irish 2,000 Guineas third Decrypt, Goodwood Listed winner Private Secretary and former Richard Fahey inmate More Than This lining up alongside Savvy Nine, World Famous and Playa Del Punte.
Golden Sixty is the likely favourite having won his last six starts, with nine victories in his 10 career outings overall.