Scarlet Dragon with work rider Derek Byrne on Wednesday morning
By James Burn 4:00pM 28 DEC 2016
Preview: Qatar, Thursday 4.45pm (GMT)
Doha: Qatar Derby (Local Group 1) 1m2f, 3yo, turf
TRAINER Eve Johnson Houghton, who has enjoyed her most successful campaign, aims to cap it in style when Scarlet Dragon runs in the $ 500,000 Qatar Derby and the trainer is giving her stable star a fighting chance of pulling it off.
A four-time winner this year, Scarlet Dragon faces a field of 15 under Britain’s newest champion jockey Jim Crowley.
His main rival appears to be Noor Al Hawa, who has won a brace of Group 3s in Germany and is joined by compatriot Noble House.
Johnson Houghton, who has saddled 41 winners in Britain in 2016 and pocketed prize-money of £502,560, said: “It’s been a phenomenal year. I’ve had some better horses and more of them, and they’ve stayed healthy, but in April and May I couldn’t buy a winner!”
Owned by a Henry Ponsonby-led syndicate that includes Lady Jeffa Kay, mother of England World Cup-winning rugby ace Ben Kay, Scarlet Dragon has played a major role in the trainer’s success.
She added: “He’s settled in really well here and is a great traveller. He’s doing everything right, but you never really know how they’ve taken it until the race. I couldn’t be happier with him.
“Noor Al Hawa looks the one to beat, but he seems to have done his winning with cut in the ground so I’m hoping that will be in our favour.
“It’s a big pot to go for and while he’s had a busy season he’s had a month’s break since his last run.
“If he wins it would open up the possibility of more travelling and if he’s good enough I’d love to take him to Australia next year, but he’s got to find another 20lb to get there so let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Andreas Wohler, who trains Noor Al Hawa, knows what it takes to succeed in Australia having won the 2014 Melbourne Cup with Protectionist and reports his challenger in fine form, although agrees with Johnson Houghton about the ground.
He said: “My horse travelled very well and has settled in well, so I’m quite confident. His strengths are his will. He hasn’t been out of the frame in his life; his worst finish was third.
“The ground’s the only concern; he’d appreciate a bit more cut, which we won’t have, but if he gets over that he should run a good race.”
Fellow German raider Noble House, on the other hand, should find conditions suit.
Trainer Mario Hofer’s daughter and assistant Steffi said: “He’s got a bad draw [in stall 14], but the ground will be okay – he loves it quick. We’ll be happy if he’s in the first five.”
Alan Munro, who won the Derby on Generous in 1991, has a ride on French Encore, while Harry Bentley, three-time champion jockey in Qatar and on his way to a fourth title, partners local hope Opera Baron for leading trainer Jassim Mohammed Ghazali.
“He’s got a good enough chance, but might just be up against it in this quality of race,” Bentley said. “He’s done nothing wrong and is two from two this season and I definitely be on one of the best local horses.”