By David Morgan – Hong Kong Jockey Club
Exultant has established a solid footing as Hong Kong’s top stayer this season but the Tony Cruz-trained five-year-old faces perhaps his stiffest test so far when he faces all-comers in Sunday’s G1 FWD Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2000m).
Among his 12 rivals is the mare that so nearly denied him a first Group 1 triumph. Japan’s Lys Gracieux headed the Teofilo gelding approaching the final phase of an epic tussle for the Hong Kong Vase (2400m) back in December, but Hong Kong’s rising force rallied under Zac Purton, taking the spoils and initiating a hat-trick of dominant wins.
“Not only do we have the Japanese horses coming back again who performed well in December but we’ve also got our Derby horses stepping out against our older horses for the first time – previously they have always held their own in this race,” Purton said.
Japan will be triple-handed with Hong Kong Cup second Deirdre and the talented Win Bright, while Hong Kong Derby one-two Furore and Waikuku will be in the exciting line-up, along with that pair’s talented peer Dark Dream.
“And we have our established mile and a quarter horses who have been doing great things the last couple of seasons,” Purton continued, with reference to the G1-winning brothers Time Warp and Glorious Forever, and last year’s QEII Cup hero, the enigmatic Pakistan Star.
“They’ve been trialling well recently so they look like they’re back to their best as well,” he added.
Exultant followed his Vase win with a confident success in the G3 Centenary Vase Handicap. That came over 1800m, a distance at the bottom end of the stamina-laden gelding’s range – he topped his rivals while shouldering 132lb. The Irish-bred followed that with a strong win in the G1 Hong Kong Gold Cup (2000m) in February – the brilliance that day was not all Exultant’s to claim.
“You saw what Zac did in the last race,” Cruz said, “taking off on the back stretch like that. You seldom see a jockey doing something like that at Sha Tin: you see it all the time at Happy Valley on that tight circuit with its short run-in but not here. To do that and still win the race, that was good!”
Purton’s mid-race move to the lead overcame the disadvantageous steady pace that threatened to leave his mount at the mercy of rivals with speedier finishing runs.
“He’s riding as well as he ever has,” Cruz continued. “He’s definitely the equal of any jockey in the world. He knows the score of how to win races here in Hong Kong. It’s not easy for jockeys to come in and ride like our jockeys here it’s a different style. It’s very tight here. If you can ride in Hong Kong you can ride anywhere.”
With almost 12 years in Hong Kong, Purton is careering towards a third championship and his first back-to-back, having seen off another champion last term in Joao Moreira. His confidence is as high as his stock right now: he has matured into one of the world’s great riders.
Exultant, meanwhile, has also matured into a star of the Hong Kong circuit and a win on Sunday would bring greater global recognition. The bay is fulfilling the potential that was hinted at when he ran third to Churchill in the 2017 G1 Irish 2,000 Guineas for his pre-import handler Michael Halford.
He was on the cusp of the elite bracket as a four-year-old, finishing close up in each of the three Four-Year-Old Classic Series races at Sha Tin, and wrapped up his debut term in Hong Kong with a pair of G3 wins, either side of a solid second in the G1 Champions & Chater Cup (2400m).
“He seems to have matured and settled better this season,” Cruz said. “It’s all to do with the right style of training but also the guy on top. He wants to go, this horse, so he needs the pace on.”
Cruz will also saddle front-runner Time Warp and Purton hopes the stablemate or the Frankie Lor-trained Glorious Forever will lead at a solid pace.
“Time Warp has to do it, he has to lead otherwise he runs badly,” Cruz said. “He only wins when he’s in front so he’s going to have to put on the pace to get his way. He’s fit and well but he’s another one that hasn’t had a run since February.”
Purton observed: “Tactics are going to be key; tempo is going to be key and I just hope I’m sitting in the right spot.
“Everyone keeps telling me (the tempo) is going to be strong but so far this season it hasn’t been. Last time I rode him the tempo was meant to be strong but they pulled it up to a walk so I’m lucky in the respect that my horse is versatile – if they want to put on the brake and pull it up, well I’ll just get out and take off.
“I know my bloke can stay, he’s got a good set of lungs and I’ll just do what I did last time. But if they want to go along at an even tempo I’ll just bide my time.”
Cruz’s concern, though, is the fact that Exultant has not had a race since the Gold Cup on 17 February.
“The two-month gap between races is difficult, especially with a stayer. He has to have barrier trials but they’re sprints on the dirt, 1200 metres, he’s always going to be out the back door,” he said.
“He’s ready to run his race but he was at such a peak in the Hong Kong Gold Cup, that was his best performance, and since then I’ve had to try to keep him up there without a race.”
Sunday’s feature is one of three G1 races on FWD Champions Day, alongside the FWD Champions Mile, in which Beauty Generation will attempt to make it eight wins in a row this term, and the Chairman’s Sprint Prize which sees Australia’s world’s best sprinter Santa Ana Lane take on the best of Hong Kong’s speedsters.