There is an event each year that gathers the famous and wealthy from every corner of the globe and brings them to the most famous peninsula in the South China Sea.
The Hong Kong Derby (est. 1873) has been a major Thoroughbred competition for nearly 150 years. The race is always held mid-March; this year, the Derby is slated to be on March 21st.
The purse for this 10-furlong race is a lucrative 18,000,000 Hong Kong dollars, or roughly $2.3 million USD.
First, I’ll provide an overview of the requirements for equine contenders, then I’ll give you a short overview of the track. Finally, I’ll list the racehorses given the best odds of winning the 2021 Derby.
Unlike the Kentucky Derby, in which three-year-old Thoroughbreds are raced, only four-year-olds are run in the Hong Kong Derby.
The Kentucky Derby can be seen as a “debutante’s ball,” while the Hong Kong Derby is akin to the Wimbledon of horse racing.
Sha Tin Racecourse
Space is at a premium in Hong Kong, so anything as large as a racetrack is going to be geared toward high-end luxury, luring well-heeled owners, top-ranked horses, and freewheeling race bettors to the site.
Sha Tin Racecourse is exactly that. This stunning waterside track hosts more than 400 races each season—sometimes as many as 10 in a day—and has seating for 85,000 spectators. There are stable accommodations for more than 1,250 horses as well as an onsite equine hospital and even an equine swimming pool.
Interestingly, the betting area is much the same as at any other racetrack in the world: plastic bus station-style seating, a long line of folks holding cash and racing forms, exposed pipes, and no-nonsense cement flooring.
Nonetheless, the track takes in more than $100 million in bets annually.
2021 Derby Frontrunners
Here are the names that are carrying high expectations, followed by a bio of each horse. Why do they all have plus-money odds? (Meaning, why can you win much more than you wager on each horse?)
The answer is simple: The field is so large in major horse racing events that no one horse can have such a substantial advantage as to almost be guaranteed a win.
Four-Year-Olds With Best Derby Odds
- Excellent Proposal +450
- Tourbillon Diamond +500
- Shadow Hero +500
- Russian Emperor +600
- Lucky Express +800
- Healthy Happy +800
- Sky Darci +1000
- Panfield +1200
By comparison, the names that are considered to have the smallest chances of winning are Ai One, Lewis, and California Ten, all running +20,000 odds at the moment.
Let’s take a look at the frontrunners.
This horse won the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 24th. He trailed, leading many to believe he was not much of a proposal but then shot forward toward the race’s close to take the trophy.
His jockey on that lucky day was Blake Shinn, who will also be astride Proposal at the Derby.
Out of 11 starts in his career, Excellent Proposal has placed 73% of the time, and won 64% of the time. He has seven wins from 11 races, hence his trim odds to win the Derby.
Something to keep in mind, however, is that each of his wins were on tracks shorter by at least 200 meters than the 2000-meter Derby course will be.
Tourbillon Diamond (Former Name Eric the Eel)
In the same race that Excellent Proposal won—the Classic Mile—Tourbillon struggled in at third place. This gelding was sired by Olympic Glory out of Irish dam Modave.
As you can tell from his name change, Diamond has undergone a change in ownership.
Tourbillon wasn’t outclassed in the Mile. He simply suffered a bit of bad luck when he had to navigate around another floundering contestant.
Thus, high hopes are still placed on Tourbillon for the Derby, especially since one of his previous wins was on a 2200-meter track, which is 10% farther than the field will be racing in the Derby.
Shadow Hero is a gelding of such deep brown that his color probably inspired the “shadow” in his name. His sire and dam are both out of Australia (Pierro and Sookie).
Out of 15 starts, Hero has only won four times, but he has taken significant prize money: $1,532,900 AUD plus $2,053,000 HKD. This puts his winnings higher than those of Tourbillon Diamond, despite the fact that Diamond has more starts (18) than Hero.
Russian Emperor is one of the most spectacularly muscular horses in the Derby field. His mother is Atlantic Jewel, and his sire is retired Thoroughbred Galileo.
Galileo has sired nearly 90 winners of Group 1 events, the highest level in horse racing.
Despite finishing ahead of Shadow Hero in the Hong Kong Classic Cup last month, Emperor is less favored to win the Derby.
You can see from the odds chart above that betting on Hero will pay 5 to 1, whereas betting on Emperor will pay 6 to 1. This means the sportsbooks and racebooks believe Hero has a better chance of winning since they are willing to promise more for an Emperor bet.
Let’s take a look at why Emperor, who finished second to Hero’s third in February, would have the odds of a less-favored horse.
|Horse||Russian Emperor||Shadow Hero|
|Classic Cup Result||2nd||3rd|
|% Times Places||62%||53%|
It’s easy to rack up big numbers when you haven’t run in many races. Thus, the fact that Russian Emperor has placed (2nd) at a higher percentage than Shadow Hero is not the only metric you want to look at when you are placing your bets.
I will look more closely at the fact that the Emperor came in ahead of Shadow Hero at the same Sha Tin track last month.
It is important to note, however, that the Derby race is 200 meters longer than the 1800-meter Classic Cup, which could make a difference when horses are inclined to pull ahead in the final stretch.
Lucky Express (Previous Name Prince of Sussex)
Lucky’s mother was Il Diamante, a 1000-meter winner at the Cranbourne course in Australia.
Lucky may have inherited mom’s prowess at the 1000-meter length, since Lucky has won his three victories on courses much shorter than the Derby—two wins on a 1200-meter track, and one win in a 1000-meter race.
On last month’s much longer 1800-meter Classic Cup course, however, Lucky finished eighth out of 14 runners.
Lucky’s odds to win the Derby are at +800. If you bet $100 and he wins, you’ll have $900 deposited into your online sportsbook account (your initial $100 bet will be returned to you, plus your $800 in winnings).
Here is what +800 means for different wager amounts:
- Bet $50, receive $450 if he wins.
- Bet $200, get back $1,800 (win + wager amount).
- Bet $1,000, receive $9,000.
- Bet $5,000, get $45,000 deposited in your sportsbook account.
How can sportsbooks promise such a large return in the event of a Lucky Express win? Because they simply don’t think it’s likely to happen.
However, keep in mind that odds vary from sportsbook to sportsbook. This is why it is smart to have accounts at two or three different top horse racing betting sites, so that you can compare odds before placing your wagers.
Note: Although Lucky has only won three of his 13 starts, he has placed in nearly 70% of his races. Thus, a “place” wager would be a more reasonable bet here, but not as reasonable as “win, place, or show,” since he’ll be up against world-class contenders at the Derby.
Healthy Happy (Previous Name Leviathan)
This bay/brown gelding has a remarkable winning percentage. Out of his 10 starts, he’s taken five wins! 80% of the tim,e he comes in first or second.
This is clearly a horse with massive winning potential, especially since one of his wins was at the 1800-meter length, thus, somewhat commensurate with the Hong Kong Derby.
The +800 odds are somewhat surprising. Let’s compare Healthy Happy with the Excellent Proposal, the sportsbooks’ current favorite to win the Derby.
|Horse||Healthy Happy||Excellent Proposal|
|Sha Tin Experience?||Yes||Yes|
|Win at Sha Tin?||Yes – Classic Cup||Yes – Classic Mile|
|Longest Winning Race||1800 meters||1600 meters|
Those stats still leave me scratching my head as to why other horses would be more heavily favored as potential winners than Healthy Happy.
In the Hong Kong Classic Cup, Healthy Happy took first place, Russian Emperor took second, and Shadow Hero took third. And yet Emperor and Hero are both more heavily favored to win the Derby.
One reason could be that Russian Emperor has had a great deal more scrutiny and fame than Healthy Happy. Emperor is out of the mighty Galileo, and bloodlines mean nearly everything in the racing world.
However, I suspect that Healthy Happy is going to surprise us come Derby day!
Another bay gelding, Sky Darci runs the risk of blending into the field at the Derby. This, however, is why the jockeys wear standout silks. Darci’s jockey will wear yellow and metallic green on race day, but hopefully (for Darci’s owners, at least) that won’t be the only way the horse stands out.
This horse has had five wins from 11 starts. He’s come in second place three times. This means Sky Darci wins or places 73% of the time, giving him a solid presence on the racing circuit.
One comment about Sky Darci’s gait is that he has a good acceleration on the outside. Furthermore, Darci has been known to recover well after an on-track hiccup.
This speaks well for the horse, since equine equanimity can mean the difference between being a frontrunner and trailing in far behind the leaders.
Panfield has had only four starts, but he has won a 2000-meter race, which gives him a leg up on the aforementioned competition.
Furthermore, Panfield’s win was at Sha Tin, so this colt already knows the ropes on this famous track. He also knows winning, since he won a string of races in Chile before heading to Hong Kong.
Panfield’s trainer stresses that this is a long-distance horse, which will be an advantage in the Derby as other mounts may be ready to quit at 1600 and 1800 meters.
If you believe Panfield has a chance to take the trophy, then you can get yourself a heck of a deal right now with the +1200 odds. If you think those odds mean that he doesn’t have a chance, consider these long shots who took first place:
- At Leopardstown Racecourse in Dublin, Ireland, He Knows No Fear won despite outlandish 300-to-1 odds!
- At Kelso Racecourse in Scotland, Equinocital won a race at odds of 250-to-1, giving his faithful and optimistic supporters a massive windfall.
- At the Grand National, Foinavon took the trophy at 100-to-1 odds, giving the spectators a race to remember. It helped that the other horses in therunning were involved in a crash-and-tumble situation. But remember that this can happen in any race. There are no guarantees. If there were, betting would be pointless.
A Word to Wrap Things Up
Here’s the thing about sports betting: If you love the sport, then a wager only increases the thrill. And given that horseraces don’t last more than a few minutes, you certainly want to get as much bang for your buck as you can.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be in Las Vegas or Hong Kong to bet on the Derby. Simply log in to one of the top online sportsbook, create an account, and you’ll have access to the entire world of horseracing.
After the Hong Kong Derby, I am looking forward to the Dubai World Cup. And I’m glad I don’t have to leave my sofa to be part of the action.