Golden Sixty came from last to first as he won a thrilling edition of the BMW Hong Kong Derby by just a neck - our man in Hong Kong Graham Cunningham tells the tale.
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.
Hong Kong's most famous race was played out to deserted Sha Tin grandstands as fears about a second wave of COVID-19 infections reduced the Sha Tin crowd to under 1000 rather than the normal 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 in order to confirm the striking 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, but 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, but 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 great Derby boilovers 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 a panic when the pace slowed on the bend," he said. "Vincent knows him so well. It all depends 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 go 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 normal luck, the Golden couple promise to make headlines in Hong Kong long after the latest lockdown situation starts to ease.
1990: Born in Hong Kong and raised in Clearwater Bay
2006: Gives up showjumping to join the HKJC Apprentice Jockeys’ School
2008: Collects autographs from star riders like Christophe Soumillon while on weighing room duty at Happy Valley’s International Jockeys’ Championship.
2009/10: Rides 44 winners in New Zealand under the tutelage of Lance O’Sullivan
May 2010: Records first Hong Kong success aboard Decent Fellow at Sha Tin and ends the day with a treble thanks to future star Lucky Nine and Matsukaze
July 2011: Crowned Champion Apprentice with 39 winners
Oct 2012: Reaches apprentice graduation benchmark of 70 as Castle Hero scores at Sha Tin
October 2014: First Group race success aboard Bundle of Joy in the National Day Cup
December 2014: Makes his International Jockeys’ Championship debut and finishes fifth
July 2015: Honoured as the season’s leading freelance rider
August 2018: First ride in Britain is a winner as X Rated scores at Haycock Park
July 2019: Finishes fourth in the jockeys’ championship with a career-best 56 winners and lands the Tony Cruz Award as leading homegrown rider
August 2019: Rides a Shergar Cup winner at Ascot as part of successful Rest of the World team
April 2019: 250th Hong Kong success as Lucky Hero scores at Sha Tin
January 2020: Wins a first major when Golden Sixty wins the Hong Kong Classic Mile
February 2020: Reaches 300 wins aboard Massive Pocket at Happy Valley
February 2020: Golden Sixty adds the Classic Cup to his Classic Mile success
March 2020: Becomes first homegrown rider to land the BMW Hong Kong Derby since Tony Cruz in 1995 as Golden Sixty salutes
Former boss Caspar Fownes: “He’s always been a lovely kid, great manners, respectful, hard-working and I’m sure that in his mind he believes that he can compete at the ultimate level. He’s cool and that’s a massive attribute to being a superstar jockey. If he’s getting the same amount of quality rides that Zac (Purton) and Joao (Moreira) get then of course he can fight with them.”
Champion jockey Zac Purton: “It’s never where you start, it’s where you end up, and Vincent has continually got better. Vincent got to ride under a lot of pressure during his apprenticeship and that is probably holding him in good stead today. He’s getting a lot of opportunities but you have to make the most of them and he’s doing a good job.”