You have to go back to 24 years to find the last time a home grown Hong Kong jockey won the BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m). That rider was Tony Cruz and on Sunday the city’s favourite horse racing son will look to one of the new wave of talented local jockeys to deliver an overdue follow-up.
Vincent Ho will partner the handler’s Ka Ying Star in the HK$18 million contest just as he has in each of the gelding’s three lead-up races - a debut victory followed by third-place in both the Hong Kong Classic Mile and the Hong Kong Classic Cup. The rider is enjoying a profitable season, ranking fifth in the premiership with 30 wins.
“Vincent’s an improving jockey,” said Cruz, who won the Derby four times as a rider (1983 Co-Tack, 1987 Tea For Two II, 1988 Clear City, 1995 Makarpura Star) and is seeking a third success as a trainer (2004 Lucky Owners, 2008 Helene Mascot).
“You have to improve here every day because this is part of racing here, you have to prove yourself and change your bad habits to good habits. Vincent’s making good progress and the owner and myself are very happy about how he has handled the horse.”
Ka Ying Star, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Ho, 28, is one of only two Hong Kong Jockey Club Apprentice Jockeys’ School graduates slated to compete in the Four-Year-Old Classic Series finale. The other is Derek Leung, who may well vie with his old classmate for the early lead aboard the “make-all” Hong Kong Classic Cup hero Mission Tycoon.
The Derby is a big deal on the Hong Kong circuit, billed as “once in a lifetime glory” in the marketing blurb. Unusual in being a “Classic” for four-year-olds, owners part with hefty cheques to buy talented three-year-olds from Europe and Australasia with the sole aim of winning the contest which dates back to 1873.
Ho has only ridden in the Derby once before, when 11th in 2016 on the Cruz-trained Green Dispatch. “Tony has supported me, he supports local riders,” he said, “so thanks to him and the owner.”
He is not fazed by the race’s grand status, schooled as he is in the ways of Hong Kong racing, where big money rolls on every race, where scrutiny is intense and the scrutineers fickle; where mistakes are magnified, good horses are difficult to secure and the competition against world class riders like Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Silvestre de Sousa is unrelenting.
“It’s a long season in Hong Kong and we have to be focussed for every race, so I won’t approach this race any differently,” he said with deadpan coolness. “Ka Ying Star has raced against the same horses in the Classic Mile and the Classic Cup, and he trialled well last week.”
Ka Ying Star’s latest barrier trial - 1200m on a wet dirt track - came last Friday (8 March). The Cityscape gelding rolled along in front wearing first-time cheekpieces and passed the post alongside last season’s Derby fourth Ruthven.
“He’s definitely ready for the race,” Ho said. “He’ll wear the cheekpieces and hopefully that will help him concentrate a bit more. The draw will be important, it usually is for this race.
“He’s got some pace, we saw that when he led in his first two races; he was still fast in the Classic Cup over 1800m last time but Mission Tycoon had the blinkers on and is always keen on the bit so he went faster than my horse.”
Ka Ying Star was a progressive handicapper with emerging class when stabled with Andrew Balding in Britain, racing as Urban Aspect. The bay won three of four races pre-import; the last of those, a hot handicap at the York Ebor Festival, convinced owner Leung Shek Kong to make a purchase.
Ho and Cruz agree that the horse is maturing and adapting to the Hong Kong way of racing.
“He’s much better even going out and behind the gates,” the rider said. “He’s better in the gate and he’s maturing; in the race he’s fine, he doesn’t pull, he relaxes. Physically and mentally, he still has some maturing to do but in each run he’s showed improvement.”
Cruz though is worried about Ka Ying Star staying the distance on Sunday, given the speed the horse has shown to date.
“He’ll show his speed but he’s going to have to show some stamina too. That’s the only thing I’m a bit worried about, the stamina for the 2000 metres,” the trainer said.
While Ho maintains a demeanour of unflappability, he admits that the prospect of winning the big one is exciting.
“It would be amazing because the Derby is a very prestigious and historic race,” he said. “To win one… it’s still a dream but now I have a horse that is improving and is a chance. I’m looking forward to it.”
Cruz will also saddle Helene Leadingstar in the 14-strong race, which also features the John Size-trained Waikuku, and, from the Frankie Lor stable, Mission Tycoon and G1 winner Dark Dream, as well as the Hong Kong Classic Mile victor Furore.
Tony Cruz wins his fourth Derby on Makarpura Star, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club