With racing nearly shut down across the globe, Golden Sixty swooped to victory in the final strides of the BMW Hong Kong Derby March 22 in a performance that, on a normal Sunday, would have had the Sha Tin Racecourse grandstand shaking with cheers.
But even empty stands, thanks to measures taken to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, could not detract from the drama as the 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro gelding, seemingly out of luck with just 100 meters to go, found just enough to put a neck in front of Playa Del Puente at the finish, completing a rare sweep of the 4-year-old classic series.
The outcome was as unforeseen as it was dramatic. Golden Sixty went to the post as the favorite, while Playa Del Puente, stepping way up in class and showing only one previous win in Hong Kong, was 289-1.
Golden Sixty's stablemate in the Francis Lui barn, More Than This, was third in the 2,000-meter (about 1 1/4-mile) fixture, which dates to 1873 and, despite the explosive growth of international group 1 races in Hong Kong, remains a prime target for local owners.
Jockey Vincent Ho, starting from gate 9, tucked Golden Sixty well back in the field during the short run to the first turn and stayed there through the journey down the backstretch. Playa Del Puente accompanied the winner early but shot quickly to the front of the field entering the final turn.
With Golden Sixty forced widest of all into the stretch, jockey Blake Shinn urged Playa Del Puente out to a big lead and looked home free with 200, then 100, meters left. But the lead proved just a neck too short.
"I wasn't too worried," Ho said. "I know my horse can produce a really good turn of foot, and he relaxed really well for me through the race. When I saw the winning post, I knew I should be able to get him, as long as the other horse didn't accelerate again.
"I didn't mind the tempo, fast or slow, as long as my horse was relaxed, and I knew I had to wait until the last bit to ask my horse to pick up. He's got the best turn of foot in the field, and I just had to be patient."
Despite his long odds and rather dismal local record, Playa Del Puente has had his moments. Competing on Dundalk's all-weather surface near the start of his career, he won the BetVictor Patton Stakes in March 2019—a race included in that year's European Road to the Kentucky Derby series, defeating the likes of Western Australia and Van Beethoven.
Golden Sixty, out of the Distorted Humor mare Gaudeamus, scored his seventh consecutive victory and 10th from 11 starts while stretching out to the 2,000 meters for the first time. His dramatic turn of foot recalled his effort in the first leg of the series, the Hong Kong Classic Mile. The win in the Hong Kong Classic Cup at 1,800 meters (about 1 1/8 miles) came after a bout with fever nearly kept him out of the race. He became only the second horse, after Rapper Dragon in 2017, to win all three legs of the 4-year-old classic series.
Now, he appears the next big thing in Hong Kong as recent-season warriors, including repeat Horse of the Year Beauty Generation, have begun to show the rust of age.
Golden Sixty holds entries in both the FWD Champions Mile (G1) and the FWD QE II Cup (G1) at 2,000 meters on Champions Day, April 26. Beyond that, the same distance options would be on display in December in the Longines Hong Kong International Races.
And, with luck, by that time there again will be fans in the stands to enjoy the performance.