The honour of firing the first 2018 salvo went to trainer Daniel Meagher after he took out the season opener, the $45,000 Welcome 2018 Stakes (1200m) with the well-backed Elise, on Monday.
The Australian trainer, who enjoyed a successful 2017 campaign at his first full season with an 11th placed finish on 30 winners, said the decision to ditch the December break had paid off.
Ridden by Benny Woodworth, Elise who was sent off as the $11 favourite, duly rewarded his backers with a hard-fought three-quarter length win over race-leader Perfect Commando (Chan Wei Sheng). The five-year-old by Faltaat looked like he was coasting when he drew upsides with Perfect Commando halfway up the straight, but had to really flex his muscles inside the last 200m to finally gain the advantage.
Elise (Benny Woodworth) bounces back to his best to score in the opener on New Year’s Day.
Longshot and Emergency Acceptor Patroclus (Ng Choon Kiat) ran a surprising third another 1 ½ lengths away. The winning time was 1min 11.39secs for the 1200m on the Long Course.
The race was the first Class 4 Non Premier race (ratings between 44 and 61) ever staged at Kranji. It is part of the new racing initiatives being launched this year.
“It’s a fantastic start – it’d be the only time I would be the leading trainer!” Meagher joked.
“But I’m really happy with this start as we took no holidays and just kept working. It’s also good for Benny and it’s good for the staff. I’m rapt for everyone.
“This horse has been struggling to win in Class 4 and for him to win today in this new ratings system goes to show how successful it is. It gives a horse like him a chance.
“I thought he overraced a little in the early stages today but they were walking as well. Benny was able to relax him and he won a nice race in the end.”
Woodworth is one of only two local jockeys (A’Isisuhairi Kasim being the other one) to be licensed a full year in 2018, admittedly helped by a prolific 2017 season with two Group wins with Forever Young.
But that did not mean the Malaysian had been sleeping on his laurels during the break. He rode in Macau in December bringing home one winner.
“I won one race for Famous Artist’s owner in Macau. It was a good way to keep myself fit,” said Woodworth.
“This horse pulled hard and that’s why I think he did not really quicken when I asked him in the straight. He was probably fresh as well.
“But it’s a nice way to begin the new year for myself and for Dan.”
Elise was bringing up his fifth win from 31 starts for stakes earnings in excess of $200,000 for his owner Chua Poh Seng, whose black and red silks shone with Secret Win in the Group 3 El Dorado Classic (2200m) last year.
Close go as Only Win matters
US-bred Only Win came with a late lunge to open his account at his seventh outing on Monday.
The Tribal Rule four-year-old showed some ability with a second place in five previous runs for trainer David Kok. After moving to Michael Clements’ yard last October, he kept up the same form with a closing third under Olivier Placais in a Restricted Maiden race over 1200m.
With Placais staying onboard, Only Win was sent at lukewarm odds of $44 in the $60,000 Happiness 2018 Stakes, a Class 4 Premier Division 2 race over 1200m, with most of the market talk skewed towards even-money favourite Mr Clint (Daniel Moor), Magic Wand (Barend Vorster) and Ladrone (Matthew Kellady).
Only Win (Olivier Placais, No 12) edges out Mr Clint by a nose (Daniel Moor) on the line.
Those three indeed were the main protagonists inside the last two furlongs, with Magic Wand and Mr Clint looking the more likely to come up trumps when they came collaring race-leader Ladrone at the 200m.
But as the trio fought for supremacy, the final blow was in the end delivered right on the outside by Only Win, who under Placais’ unmistakable whipping style, responded with a late surge to nut Mr Clint out right on the peg.
Debut winner Magic Wand (for Bruce Marsh), who was having his second start for trainer Ricardo Le Grange, was certainly not disgraced with a third place another neck away with Ladrone fourth another 1 ¾ lengths away. The winning time was 1min 10.78secs for the 1200m on the Long Course.
Clements was all smiles as he walked down a route he has plied 54 times for a sixth-placed finish last year.
“It’s great to keep the good run going,” said the Zimbabwean-born handler who certainly enjoyed one of his best seasons in 2017.
“It was not a very strong race and we thought there was only the favourite (Mr Clint) to beat. He stripped fitter after his first run for us.
“The distance was not ideal either as I think he’s more of a 1400m horse and even further, but he liked the sting out of the track.
“He ran well on a yielding track before and he’s done well again today.”
Placais said Only Win did not switch on right away when he called upon him, but a little bit of company spurred him to victory in the end.
“He ran very well at his last start and I gave him a small chance. In the first 200m of the straight, he was in a good spot but was not quickening the way I thought he would,” said the French rider.
“It’s only after Daniel’s horse (Mr Clint) came up to him that he gave a nice kick. It’s a horse who will improve further.
“Big thank you to Mike and the owners for putting me on. I don’t ride very often for Mike and it’s great to combine for a win with him and at the first day of the year.”
Placais did ride one winner for Clements once and it dates as far back as March 25, 2011 on a horse named Classic Express.
Speedy Dragon sweeps away with New Year Cup
Local trainer David Kok could not have hoped for a better memory eraser of a bad year than a Group winner at the dawn of a new season on Monday, Speedy Dragon in the $200,000 Group 3 New Year Cup (1200m).
It is well-documented the Singaporean handler endured one of his worst seasons in 2017 with a paltry haul of 11 winners.
In stark contrast, Kok bagged almost the double of that score the year before, not to mention two Group 1 races, the Emirates Singapore Derby and the Patron’s Bowl with Well Done.
Speedy Dragon (A’Isisuhairi Kasim) clears out for a facile victory in the New Year Cup.
Beleaguered by a slew of injuries that sidelined most of his horses in his small yard, Kok vowed to turn the tables this year, and Speedy Dragon, one of his stalwart sprinters, was just the tonic he needed to give him a nice kickalong.
The sparingly-raced US-bred chestnut by Safe In The Usa is himself the perfect epitome of Kok’s rollercoaster year. Hounded by knee chip issues all his career, the six-year-old, who has not visited the winner’s enclosure since June 2016, underwent his third such surgery after his last run in the Group 3 Rocket Man Sprint (1200m) last March.
But Kok again nursed him back to racing condition. Even if his two unplaced starts at the end of last year did not suggest a return to his heyday was imminent, Kok was quietly confident the six-time winner was not far off his best.
Completely overlooked in the market at $180, no doubt with most thinking his chances were compounded further by his wide alley in nine, Speedy Dragon defied the odds to turn in a jaw-dropping performance.
Eased back into a rearward spot three wide by first-time partner A’Isisuhairi Kasim, the Jason Goh-owned (same owner as Well Done) galloper initially settled reasonably well as the noted speedsters like Nova Swiss (Benny Woodworth), favourite Skywalk (Daniel Moor) and Sebas (Azhar Ismail) made a beeline for the usual early rush.
Winning team enjoying the limelight: (from left) jockey A’Isisuhairi Kasim, trainer David Kok and assistant-trainer
Adrien Chin, who acted as stable representative.
But rather unexpectedly, the pace dropped right off at the 800m when Nova Swiss cleared Sebas rather comfortably to settle into the lead, packing up the mid-section instantly, resulting in Speedy Dragon starting to overrace out deep as Forever Young (Ryan Curatolo) slid up on his nearside.
Without panicking, A’Isisuhairi made the winning move when he allowed his mount to roll forward albeit still three wide, cornering to draw on level terms with Nova Swiss.
All of a sudden, Speedy Dragon pinched a two-length break even though A’Isisuhairi had not really gone full throttle yet. Caught hopelessly napping, the backmarkers looked in disarray as they tried to peg the unlikely runaway leader, but it was clearly mission impossible.
Obviously back on song, Speedy Dragon glided on his pet surface to coast to the line, unchallenged. Fortune Winner (Saifudin Ismail) ran on for second place when it was all over, winding up 2 ¼ lengths astern of Speedy Dragon.
Recent Group 3 Colonial Chief Stakes (1700m) winner Nova Strike ran his usual honest race but the miler evidently ran out of ground over the six furlongs to finish third another three parts of a length away. The winning time was 1min 11.2secs for the 1200m on the Polytrack.
An elated Kok said he had harboured a silent hope Speedy Dragon could stage an upset despite all the niggles he had to overcome.
“He is a true Polytrack horse and he has been working very well,” he said.
“I actually expected him to run well. I was not worried he was all worked up in the parade ring as he does that all the time.
“This horse has had three knee chip surgeries and to see him win today is a big thrill. For that, I have to thank my boys at the stable and his patient owner, Jason Goh, who unfortunately could not be here today for the race.
“Harry also rode him very well. He did the right thing when he moved forward as they slowed up the pace.
“It’s been a tough year, and let’s hope this Group win is a good sign of better things to come, especially as it’s on New Year’s Day.
“I don’t want to get too carried away, though, as last year, I actually won two races on New Year’s Day and then we know what happened.
“We will just take one day at a time. I don’t have any specific plans for Speedy Dragon, just look for another Polytrack race I guess.”
A’Isisuhairi has certainly been stamping himself as the go-to man for feature races in recent years, especially when lightweight jockeys are needed. Two years ago, the former two-time Singapore champion apprentice jockey won the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup as a replacement rider (Manoel Nunes was stood down) on Titanium, and last year he fully repaid trainer Cliff Brown’s trust when he guided Gilt Complex to land the Group 1 Raffles Cup.
The New Year Cup, which was being dropped from 1900m to 1200m for the first time, may not rank as highly as those two aforementioned wins, but A’Isisuhairi was still happy to bask in the limelight, especially with the auspiciousness of the New Year coinciding.
“I’ve never ridden this horse before. I didn’t have a ride after a horse trained by Michael Clements was balloted out,” said the Kelantan-born rider.
“David rang me and asked me if I could ride him. He said he had 51.5kgs and I said ‘good as gold’.
“Looking at the horse’s recent form, you would not think he could win such a race, but I always believed you must go in with confidence, and on the day, anything can happen.
“We thought there would be a lot of speed in the race, and from his wide barrier, I would settle behind the speed. He began okay, but then they slowed down in front.
“David had already warned me Speedy Dragon has his own quirks and issues and he likes to lay out, rear or dip in the gates. When the pace slowed down, he wanted to hang out.
“So, instead of fighting him, I just let him stride, and next thing I know, he was travelling three wide outside the leader.
“Then came the funny part. At the top of the straight, I went to the front and as I went about changing his legs, I was expecting the challengers to come at us.
“But to my surprise, I couldn’t see anyone. Where are they? From then on, he kept going strongly to the line and I knew we couldn’t lose.”
Speedy Dragon, who, stunningly, was at his fifth season, but only at his 18th start, has now recorded seven wins and five placings for stakes earnings that have hit around the $420,000 mark for the GTR Racing Stable.