Hong Kong golden boy on grid for Group 1 glory – James Willoughby on Golden Sixty

Horse Racing Golden Sixty runs in Hong Kong Mile
Vincent Ho says riding Golden Sixty is how he imagines what it would be like to drive a Formula 1 car. Photo: HKJC

In an article for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, JAMES WILLOUGHBY examines what makes hometown hero Golden Sixty, hot favourite for the Longines Hong Kong Mile, such a special racehorse

Formula 1 fan Vincent Ho knows what it’s like to go from nought to Golden Sixty. He has steered the horse whom Hong Kong racing can call ‘one of our own’ with all the deftness and daring of his hero Lewis Hamilton. Now, a seemingly unstoppable horse and his unflappable jockey are in pole position for G1 garlands in the Longines Hong Kong Mile on Sunday.

Hong Kong International Races: all you need to know in the Sha Tin takeaway

Golden Sixty is a homegrown hero who has gone through the grades. Every race has seen his world-class acceleration fine-tuned at Sha Tin, with only one speed bump in the road en route to 13 career wins. To appreciate what makes him tick, we need to use similar metrics to Hamilton’s Mercedes mechanics.

Like a racing car, every horse has only so much fuel in the tank. But we must be careful not to overuse the analogy, because a horse is a high-performance machine with mental as well as physical needs.

Last season’s Hong Kong Classic Series and Derby winner will not come roaring off the grid because this is not what suits him best; instead, he likes to bide his time and overtake rivals late and fast.

Now, let’s get technical: since the start of last season, in September 2019, there have been 73 races at Sha Tin over a mile from which we can draw performance data. Using finishing times, and pacing as described by sectional times, we can infer the most optimal way for a horse to distribute its energy.

If a horse’s personal best is 1m33s it should pace the last quarter in 22.9s; and if 1:34 is its limit, the final section should go in 23.2s. The relationship these figures describe can be inferred from statistical analysis, but the sensitive dependence between pace and finishing time is a consequence of the laws of physics.

So, whether you are behind the wheel or at the end of the reins, timing is everything. Ho makes it look easy, as if he is just the enabler of a latent force of nature. 

But this is just the illusion of good judgment; if Ho moves too early Golden Sixty’s extraordinary burst can level off and his mind can wander – consider his penultimate start in the G2 Sha Tin Trophy when he drifted right as the front-running Ka Ying Star rallied to cut his margin close home to just half a length. If Ho moves too late, there is only so much ground that Golden Sixty can make up, especially if Sunday’s high-end opponents are quickening in front.

Then there is the spectre of traffic trouble. Golden Sixty has been so much better than his rivals that he has been moving a lot faster than the gaps in front of him. Ho has found qualifying for this showdown a bit like Hamilton did touring the easily navigable expanses of Spa this year, but this race could present itself more like the twisting streets of Monaco.

Golden Sixty unleashed a 21.81s final quarter to beat Ka Ying Star in the Sha Tin Trophy then fired home in 21.89s for an even more impressive victory over the same horse in the G2 Jockey Club Mile last month. In both races, he ran what athletes call ‘negative splits’  – following a steady pace, then deploying his trademark acceleration to finish more than six per cent faster than his average speed for the race.

Horse Racing Vincent Ho jockey
Hometown hero: Vincent Ho deflects credit to Golden Sixty after the Hong Kong Derby. Photo: HKJC

While this is how Golden Sixty rolls, it is not always good for fuel efficiency.

If we take all horses at Sha Tin who win while departing from efficient splits to the same extent as Golden Sixty, we find the bulk of them are capable of ratings 7lb-10lb (up to five lengths) faster on other occasions. (This kind of mathematical modelling is now commonplace for those who need to know the true superiority of winners at Sha Tin where winning margins are often small, yet horses can climb the handicap sharply.)

In Golden Sixty’s latest win, he had the veteran Southern Legend less than two lengths behind in third. The latter was conceding 5lb, so the theory of handicapping is that a rematch should be tight. 

Vitally, however, Southern Legend’s finishing split of 22.42s was closer to the ideal, so the implication is that the veteran has far less potential to run a faster time than Golden Sixty in a race featuring a stronger early pace. This is how we can quantify what the naked eye suggests to our intuition – that Golden Sixty was more superior than the distances at the end of the race suggested.

With proven G1 rivals in opposition, can Golden Sixty make a noise which will be heard around the racing world? 

He won’t do so cheaply: Order Of Australia represents Aidan O’Brien after blossoming to startling effect in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, while last year’s 1-2-3 are due to return in the shape of Japanese runner Admire Mars, Waikuku and Beauty Generation. Note well that Golden Sixty will be 10lb worse off with the last-named fading superstar compared with October’s Sha Tin Trophy, in which the gap was 3½ lengths.

So far, the sonic boom behind Golden Sixty has echoed around a silent Sha Tin – he won his first major race in January on the first day of ‘BCD’ (Behind Closed Doors) racing at Sha Tin.

Imagine the lusty support his relentless rise would have generated if there were no pandemic, especially given how deeply the roots of horse, rider and trainer Francis Lui are embedded locally. 

The pride and joy of owner Stanley Chan stands on 10 straight wins. One more will leave him behind only one Hong Kong horse in this regard, the awesome Silent Witness who won 17 back-to-back.

“I’ve never been in a Formula 1 car but I feel like riding Golden Sixty is probably similar,” says Ho. Notwithstanding the perils of timing and traffic, the top of the podium surely awaits this sleek, near-black equine supercar in the Mile.

But racing luck is always closely bound with championship racing. As they say in Hamilton’s sport, ‘IF’ is just ‘F1’ spelled backwards.

• More about the Longines Hong Kong International Races at the HKJC website

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