There are 21 jockeys licensed to ride in Hong Kong on full or part-time contracts at present. Only 14 horses will go to post for the circuit’s biggest domestic prize this Sunday (17 March), the Hong Kong Derby (2000m).
The talent in the jockey’s room includes the biggest names of all: Zac Purton, Joao Moreira and Silvestre de Sousa. It also features skilled exponents of lesser standing but abundant ability, all angling in the past months and weeks to hook a Derby ride.
Neil Callan is pleased to have sealed his Derby spot on the John Moore-trained Sunny Speed, even though the horse is expected to fall short of snaring the winner’s share of the HK$18 million pot.
“It’s important for any jockey here to get a ride in the Derby because it’s such a prestigious race, such a big race,” the Irishman said.
But when this season’s four-year-old standouts go to post, as is ever the case, big draw fly-ins – licensed for the day – will have strapped their saddles to five of those contenders. Hugh Bowman (Furore) and Ryan Moore (Enrichment), no less, will each attempt to carry off a second Derby trophy; Craig Williams (Tianchi Monster), Oisin Murphy (Gold Chest) and James McDonald (Ho Ho Khan) are all eager for a first.
“Everyone knows how competitive it is here, there is only a certain amount of trainers and there are only 14 rides in the Derby,” Callan continued.
Take out the five day-pass riders and Hong Kong’s big three, and the likes of Callan, Karis Teetan (Helene Leadingstar), Umberto Rispoli (Mr So And So), Chad Schofield (Red Warrior) and co. have been fighting over six berths – make that four with Vincent Ho locked on to Ka Ying Star and Derek Leung glued to his Hong Kong Classic Cup victor Mission Tycoon. Pickings have been on the slim side.
“When you look at the Derby picture it’s formed a long way out,” Callan said. “The best horses, if you get that ride early and the horse keeps on an upward trajectory you’ve got a strong Derby candidate. The later it gets, it looks like you’re just picking up a ride. You might pick up the odd decent ride but more or less the best horses are already set.
“There are four there now on the highest ratings and those jockeys were on them when they first ran or thereabouts.”
The top four are Waikuku under the ever-present Moreira; Dark Dream with Zac Purton up top for his first and latest of four starts; Furore, ridden by Leung for two warm-up runs before Bowman took over for a Classic Mile win and Classic Cup fourth; and Mission Tycoon.
As for Sunny Speed, Callan has not yet sat on the chestnut but is hoping for a good run at the weekend with one eye on the future. The colt raced as Crack On Crack On for previous trainer Clive Cox in England and arrived in Hong Kong on 10 November – too late usually for a horse to prep through to the Derby.
“It’s a good job on John’s part in actually getting him into the line-up,” Callan said.
Moore had his eye on the horse for most of last summer but his then owners Clare and Paul Rooney were understandably reluctant to sell at first.
“He was a top grade handicapper,” Moore said. “He was favourite for the Britannia at Royal Ascot but missed the kick. I just wish I could have got him into the country a month earlier. I expect to see another step forward and from a good gate he could be running fourth or fifth in the Derby. He definitely has the potential to step up into the big-time going forward.
“He’s just starting to come into a little bit of form off that fourth last time. He showed something – Waikuku ran past him but the 2000 metres is right up his alley.”
Callan, too, was pleased with Sunny Speed’s solid fourth to Waikuku in a Class 2 1800m handicap last time. That followed a local debut 11th in the Classic Cup.
“His last run was good: he was stuck wide with no cover and was entitled to drop away but he didn’t, he kept going on. That gives some encouragement,” the jockey said.
“As the season goes on into next season I think he’s going to be a really nice horse. He looks a good horse.”
Moore has six Derby wins to his name. Callan is chasing his first.