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PPG prominence is the new normal in Hong Kong Derby reckoning

High-cost PPs used to have the upper hand in the Hong Kong Derby but PPGs winning the last three highlights an overall shift in approach to sourcing horses that looks set to continue a while longer.

The dawning of a new year throws the spotlight onto Hong Kong’s four-year-olds and the Classic Mile at the end of January will begin the serious sifting of the crop, being as it is the first of two major lead-ups to the race that makes the whole place tick, the Hong Kong Derby, at the end of March.

But before we reach the Classic Mile in just over three weeks, or February’s follow-up, the Classic Cup, there is already a shuffling of the pack taking place and on Sunday at Sha Tin a Class 3 handicap restricted to four-year-olds could offer a big clue as to how this year’s Derby might take shape.

Not only will the contest give an inkling as to how many of the highly-touted candidates are on the right trajectory, but also it could shed light as to whether or not the recent trend of PPG ascendancy will continue through this year’s Derby.  

The 85-60 contest over 1600 metres this weekend garnered 15 entries, one more than the 14-runner maximum: three of those were PPGs (Privately Purchased Griffins), unraced at point of import, against 12 PPs (Privately Purchased horses) already raced before their arrival and, in some cases, now in a race against time to acclimatise to their new reality.  

The contest’s PP contingent features tried imports with stakes race profiles, among them the Irish G2-winner Atomic Beauty, the G1 Prix Morny runner-up from France, Viva Chaleur, the G1-tested ex-Ballydoyle galloper Ivy League, last year’s Britannia Stakes winner Thesis and a rare filly in Hong Kong, the G1 Australian Guineas third Bon’s A Pearla. 

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Filly Bon's A Pearla is now with the David Hayes yard. (Photo by Reg Ryan)

Thesis wins The Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

The three PPGs entered for the weekend test are headed by Sweet Encounter, and, given recent history, John Size’s upwardly mobile gelding is the most enthralling runner of all. The Vicky Tang-owned galloper has won four of his five starts since stepping out for the first time with a 1200-metre win at Sha Tin in late September and that pattern has similarities to Romantic Warrior last season, who debuted in the October and won four on the bounce before winning the Classic Mile en route to his Hong Kong Derby victory.

Romantic Warrior’s 2022 Derby win was the third in a row by a horse unraced prior to import – he is an ISG, a graduate of the Hong Kong International Sale – following the PPGs Golden Sixty in 2020 and Sky Darci in 2021, and that Derby hat-trick was a break from the normal.

Since the year 2000, PPs have won the Derby 15 times to eight wins by PPG/ISGs; but rewind three years and the PPs had outpointed the PPGs at a ratio of three wins to one.

The first five PPG Derby winners this century made for a mixed bunch: Ambitious Dragon was a superstar; Luger was brilliant but his frailties meant he did not win again in just three more starts post-Derby; Lucky Owners’ career was over after just one more race; Fay Fay failed to win in 11 attempts after his day of Derby glory; and Keen Winner’s Derby win was his last, followed by 29 defeats across the next three seasons.    

Contrast the PPG record with the Derby-winning PPs in the century’s first two decades: the internationally-famous champions Vengeance Of Rain, Viva Pataca and Designs On Rome, then the top-class stars Werther, Akeed Mofeed, Olympic Express and the ill-fated Rapper Dragon, and backing up those, Collection, Elegant Fashion and Furore showed high-level form after their Derby wins.

Joao Moreira drives Rapper Dragon to a famous Derby victory. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

More past PPG Derby winners than not seemed limited in their scope when compared to the Group 1-class imports, purchased for big money. But that has changed in the past three years: Sky Darci had limitations and suffered an untimely demise after his Derby but Golden Sixty has established a reputation as an all-time great in Hong Kong and Romantic Warrior’s G1 Hong Kong Cup win last month suggested he could do the same.  

The shift to PPG ascendancy is emphasised in the fact that the top five horses in the Hong Kong ratings right now all come under that designation: Golden Sixty, Romantic Warrior, California Spangle, Wellington and Lucky Sweynesse are all PPG or ISG, and that is rare, perhaps unique. The top-rated PP is the veteran eight-year-old Waikuku.

This trend toward an increasing number of PPGs and ISGs rising through the ranks from a start-off rating of 52 to reach the top is rooted in the high cost, and, more specifically, limited availability of top-end PPs for purchase. The likes of Designs On Rome, Akeed Mofeed, Beauty Generation and Werther, even a high-priced European Group 1-winning PP that turned out to be a relative flop, like Helene Charisma, are difficult to snare in the current market.

As 2023 dawns, the reality nowadays is that a horse like Akeed Mofeed, or Mont Ormel – as Helene Charisma was named in France – would likely be purchased by Australian interests rather than sold to Hong Kong.  

Waikuku is now Hong Kong's top-rated PP. (Photo by HKJC)

As for the PPGs – bought out of yearling sales, ready to run sales or directly from their owners after an Australasian barrier trial – their numbers are on the increase, markedly so, in response to the difficulties in procuring the right types of quality PPs.   

The Hong Kong Jockey Club has opened the way for a higher proportion of PPGs in the Hong Kong horse population than previously. Last July the Club issued 400 new permits to its owners: that number was made up of 90 PP permits and 310 PPG permits; those figures contrasted with 2021 when the Club issued 130 PP permits and 280 PPG permits.

Then, in November, the Club responded to a shortfall in the horse population by announcing that it had taken the dramatic step of ‘promoting’ 100 owners from the PPG reserve and tender list, granting them permits to go out and buy a PPG. The upshot of this move is that there could be 410 PPGs entering the Hong Kong system for the 2023-24 season against just 90 PPs.   

Hong Kong owners are pragmatic. There are no guarantees with any horse, so if you can pick up Sweet Encounter for NZ$110,000 (US$68,700) out of a trial, or Golden Sixty for NZ$300,000 (US$187,500), why chase a PP for US$1 million?

Packing Treadmill is a PPG on an upward curve towards the Classic Mile. (Photo by HKJC)

Sweet Encounter is a PPG and one of the leading candidates for this year's Classic Series. (Photo by HKJC)

After all, the Hong Kong Derby trail is littered every year with high-cost PPs that never acclimatised and failed to reproduce their pre-import form; and no trainer has been able to match the success of the ‘retired’ John Moore in sourcing and acclimatising top-line PPs.

After PPGs took out all three legs of last year’s Classic Series, and filled the first two places in the Derby, a Sweet Encounter win at the weekend could signal more of the same. The PPG hand is already looking strong going into the Classic Mile after Packing Treadmill earned his sixth win at his eighth start on Christmas Eve.

The money that owners invest in trying to secure a Hong Kong Derby winner is what keeps the Hong Kong racing world turning, and, with so many PPG permits on the table, it should be fascinating to see what kind of presence Hong Kong buyers will have this year at sales from Magic Millions to Karaka to Inglis, and perhaps even Tattersalls, Arqana and Goffs. 

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