Despite the proliferation of group 1 races at Sha Tin Racecourse, the BMW Hong Kong Derby is the high point of the season for locals and sometimes a pathway to the top levels for upwardly mobile horses.
The race is far and away the most coveted by Hong Kong owners, not only because of the generous purse—HK$18 million, nearly US$2.3 million, for the March 18 renewal—but also for the prestige of an event dating to 1873.
Unlike the English race for 3-year-olds to which Lord Derby lent his name in 1780, and many others around the world, this race is restricted to 4-year-olds and caps a three-race series that sees distances start at the Hong Kong Classic Mile, then extend to 1,800 meters (1 1/8 miles) in the Hong Kong Classic Cup, and finally to the Derby's 2,000 meters (1 1/4 miles).
That configuration often leaves the Derby to sort things out, and this year's edition is no exception.
Nothingilikemore, winner of the Classic Mile in January, finished fourth when he missed the start and lost a shoe in the Feb. 18 Hong Kong Classic Cup, won by Singapore Sling. Those two are among the 14 entered for the Derby.
Trainer John Size and jockey Joao "Magic Man" Moreira expressed hope Nothingilikemore's starting problems were solved after the Husson gelding got away smoothly in a trial March 13 and strolled home an easy winner.
"He's been a little bit upset at the gates on race day," Size said after the trial. "He's missed the start twice this season just by not concentrating on the start. So we had to do a little bit of work with him to try and rectify that. I've done what I wanted to do, and I hope that he presents and behaves himself better at the races on Sunday."
The starting issues were magnified when Nothingilikemore drew the 13 gate.
Size also fields Ping Hai Star, winner of his last three starts in Hong Kong—albeit all at 1,400 meters (seven furlongs). The Nom Du Jeu gelding will be ridden by Ryan Moore. Moreira, who rode Ping Hai Star in five of his six local starts, says that combination is dangerous.
"Ping Hai Star's a very nice type of a horse," Moreira said this week. "He's talented. He's got so much ability. He is a bit strong, he pulls a bit, but Ryan has soft and amazing hands, and if he can get him to relax in the race, I wouldn't be surprised if he's the one dashing to run everyone else down."
Temper that endorsement with the fact Moreira opted to stick with Nothingilikemore.
While the primary luster of the race is local, its reach is international. Hong Kong Jockey Club owners scour the globe to find likely prospects specifically for the Derby.
Singapore Sling, a Philanthropist gelding, came to Hong Kong as a classy group 2 winner in his native South Africa, a jurisdiction that promises to take a more important role in Hong Kong's future.
Exultant, well-regarded in Ireland, placed third in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas (G1). In five Hong Kong races, he scored a class 2 handicap win at the Derby course and distance before finishing fourth in the Classic Mile and second in the Classic Cup.
Tony Cruz will saddle both Exultant and The Golden Age, third in the Classic Cup.
The race has also been a gateway to success in the Hong Kong group 1 races for the likes of Viva Pataca (GB) in 2006, Designs on Rome in 2014, and Werther in 2016. Rapper Dragon became the first horse to win all three legs of the 4-year-old classic series last year but suffered a fatal breakdown in the Champions Mile (G1) just as he was about to burst onto the international stage.