Australian thoroughbred Alligator Blood has become a star three-year-old this season. Photo by Grant Courtney – Pao Ma Photography.

The horses money can’t buy: which three-year-olds will end up in next year’s Hong Kong Derby?

Michael Cox

Michael Cox

For hutchishonkers.com

Michael Cox’s Derby Watch

In the lead-up to the 2020 Hong Kong Derby, Michael Cox will provide analysis for Hutchi’s Honkers as the next generation of stars builds up to the big race on March 20. The four-year-old series begins with the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 27, continues with the Hong Kong Classic Cup on February 23 and culminates with the Derby on March 22.

 

14/02/20

 

Australian and New Zealand racing currently boasts a crop of three-year-olds of rare quality and depth but as the sport in Hong Kong lurches from one crisis to another it doesn’t necessarily mean that the 2021 Hong Kong Derby crop will be stellar.

Hong Kong’s economy has hit on an unwanted tierce: first, a trade war with America, then mass civil unrest on the streets of Hong Kong and now a virus that has arguably caused even more widespread disruption to society and racing.

Hong Kong does not have a breeding industry and owners must source horses from overseas and when it comes to winning a Derby – which is for four-year-olds in Hong Kong – the most effective way is to buy previously raced three-year-olds (and sometimes two-year-olds).

To clarify, buying tried horses out of Group races is the most effective way to winning a Derby – but it might not be the most cost effective way to source a Derby winner. It can take big bucks to buy a Derby contender, funds that owners had during the boom years of China’s massive year-on-year growth that was matched with huge increases in prizemoney.

Horses with black type form from overseas are now regularly costing Hong Kong owners northward of AUD 2 million – even those below Group 3 standard can cost in excess of AUD 1 million – but as prizemoney continues to rise to astronomic levels in Australia and the structure of syndications change, owners are becoming more reluctant to let go of their young horses.

As hype builds on both sides of the Tasman ahead of the rich Australian autumn features, it is already apparent that many talented three-year-old geldings that would usually be bound for Hong Kong are staying put.

In Australia, the owners of Alligator Blood – a winner of eight from nine races – and in New Zealand Catalyst – a winner of six from seven – have rebuffed massive offers from Hong Kong.

The two pin-up horses clash in Saturday’s Group 3 CS Hayes Stakes at Flemington and have a lot in common.

Both are immensely popular, with untapped talent and with a racing style that endears them to fans, they are also both geldings with no residual breeding value and both anatomically correct enough to pass the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s strict vet checks.

Alligator Blood and Catalyst are perfect Hong Kong prospects but despite bidding wars that have gone on for months, it has become clear that neither horse is for sale.

Last year it was Group 1 Queensland Derby winner Mr Quickie attracting those offers – rumored to have reached AUD 2.5million – only for a syndicate of racing lovers to hang on to their beloved gelding.

In the past the seven figure offers were “too good to refuse” from an economical standpoint, as there was very little chance a horse could win that much prizemoney.

That was before a tit-for-tat prizemoney war between Racing NSW and Racing Victoria that saw total prizemoney paid out between the Australian States top AUD 1 billion last season and a raft of new races with exorbitant purses.

For all of the scorn and mirth aimed at one of those races, the AUD 7.5 million Golden Eagle, the nascent event has already achieved primary aim: to keep four-year-olds racing in Australia, whether that be by encouraging owners to rebuff overseas offers or, in the case of colts, from retiring them to stud farms.

Classique Legend was already raced by prominent Hong Kong-owner Boniface Ho and would have been jettisoned to Sha Tin if not for the lure of an Everest and Golden Eagle-double in the spring of his four-year-old season, and it meant one less potential Derby contender.

The new races in Sydney were the catalyst for Racing Victoria to come up with the AUD 5 million All-Star Mile, a race modelled on the Japan Racing Association’s two fan-voted features, the Group 1 Arima Kinen and the Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen.

Alligator Blood and Catalyst are the top two in voting for the All-Star Mile and while owners are enjoying this ride, and with the Golden Eagle still more than six months away, it’s unlikely that we will ever see the two excitement machines have their names changed to something like Lucky Super Elite Win and trained out of Sha Tin.

 

Alligator Blood looks a thoroughbred star in the making. Grant Courtney – Pao Ma Photography.

 

Of course Alligator Blood and Catalyst are just two of an outrageously talented group that is bringing back memories of when Octagonal, Nothin’ Leica Dane, Saintly and Filante waged war in the autumn of 1996.

Last year’s Everest winner Yes Yes Yes has already been retired to stud, but the active group still contains Group 1 winners Castelvecchio, Super Seth and Alabama Express – which beat the older horses in last week’s Group 1 CF Orr Stakes to provide another boost to the credentials of this crop.

It has never been the Group 1 winners that Hong Kong owners generally buy, at least not the ones with stud value or obvious upside, but rather those just below top level – either Group 1-placed or stakeswinners.

Still, the question is, with the Chinese economy slumping and such a state of uncertainty in Hong Kong, will owners have the funds to buy the quality they once did?

Despite the economic gloom, permits will still be filled, the Hong Kong Derby will likely still be run, but given the current climate it is quite possible that the horses competing won’t be as good as those before them were.

 

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