Michael Lee – Singapore Turf Club
Going back-to-back was billed as a harder act to follow this year, but Southern Legend doesn’t read the papers, going on to score with an even greater authority at his second consecutive win in the $1.5 million Group 1 Kranji Mile (1600m) on Saturday night.
Last year’s victor in the inaugural invitational race has actually not greeted the judge since his 2018 win, even though he’s been performing creditably in his own backyard, finishing runner-up in a couple of notable Group races.
But after his moderate sixth in the Group 1 Dubai Turf (1800m) in March, there was some legitimate concerns whether the son of Not A Single Doubt had the intestinal fortitude to bounce back when he was one year older.
Even trainer Caspar Fownes was not spared those moments of doubt, though the consummate professional in him did the textbook course of action. He duly gave Southern Legend a break, hoping the spark would return.
And how the spark exploded into fireworks, 12 months almost to the day (last year’s was run on May 26) and at that same hunting ground Southern Legend seems to thrive on.
Just like his Kranji-loving trainer who was at his 10th raid and was taking home his fifth Singapore silverware. The three-time Hong Kong champion trainer previously also won three KrisFlyer International Sprints with Green Birdie (2010) and Lucky Nine (2013 and 2014).
Doubts were cast mainly because this year, he had arguably a more formidable foe to contend with in fellow Hongkonger Singapore Sling, prepared by last year’s runner-up Horse Of Fortune’s trainer Tony Millard, obviously keen to turn the tables on Team Southern Legend this year.
But the defining moment probably occurred at the start when against all odds, it was Singapore Sling (Karis Teetan) who sprang the lids the fastest from his outermost alley (10) to take the early command but after doing some work to get there.
Hong Kong champion jockey Zac Purton, who steered Southern Legend to an all-the-way win last year, seemed happy to let his main adversary take the early control of the race as Countofmontecristo (Glen Boss) slid up on the outside to sit in second spot.
The speed was steady with the 10-horse field fairly strung out while Singapore’s leading hope Debt Collector (Michael Rodd) saw them all as predicted.
The speedmap had gone pretty much to script, save for the torchbearer job. In a reversal of roles, Singapore Sling dictated while Southern Legend (who jumped from the more advantageous barrier No 2) was enjoying the perfect cart in behind.
As the field packed up round the home turn, the buzzmeter went up a notch, both in the Hong Kong camp and among the Singapore team. It was still anybody’s race, but if the Bauhinia flag was to fly high again at Kranji (they have already taken centrestage at such international meetings at Kranji nine times – three Singapore Airlines International Cup, five KrisFlyer International Sprints and one Kranji Mile), it was unlikely to come from Singapore Sling.
When Countofmontecristo came serving it up to him at the top of the straight, Millard’s charge already looked under the pump, no doubt softened up by his premature efforts to come across.
The South African-bred five-year-old by Philanthropist, however, seemed to have another kick left in him as Countofmontecristo regressed, but he could not contain the flurry of assaults that followed.
Blizzard (Aldo Domeyer), who, quite the opposite of Singapore Sling, is a former Hong Kong resident but who now calls Singapore home under Lee Freedman’s polish, was showing plenty of ticker as he hit the front out three wide.
But the Starcraft seven-year-old was about to be knocked for six by the Hong Kong Legend, who like a gathering storm, was about to be released into its full fury.
Peeled out into the clear at the top of the straight, Southern Legend did not need much coaxing from Purton as he ambled to the front before bursting clear the moment his rider cut off the ribbons.
In the twinkling of an eye, the $8 favourite (he was in the end punted down to favouritism despite the query on his form presumably after his declared nemesis drew the widest) opened up to a commanding break that just kept widening with every stride.
Once Purton gave a quick glance over the shoulder and saw his opponents chasing shadows, he knew he had his fifth Singapore Group win all stitched up. The mercurial Australian jockey just allowed his horse to coast to the line, two-and-a-half lengths clear of Blizzard. Though headed, Singapore Sling dug down deep into his undeniable class to claw his way back into third place another half-length away.
Debt Collector ran his usual race, launching off a searching run out wide, momentarily looking half-a-chance at the top of the straight, but the cattle he was pitted against was made of another metal this time. The 2016 Singapore Horse of the Year still ran a race full of merit to finish fourth another 1 ¼ lengths away.
While Southern Legend won by three lengths last year, the smarter time he clocked was a better barometer of the more scintillating – almost contemptuous – fashion of the 2019 win. He ran 1min 33.61secs, 0.18 second better than last year’s, with Purton giving only one smack around the tail and easing down 100 yards out.
Fownes was probably relishing the second win better, especially as it’s always harder to stay on top than reach the top.
“It’s always good to bounce back, especially after a disappointing run in Dubai,” said the Hong Kong-based English trainer.
“He just loves Singapore. He travelled beautifully, and he’s been looking a treat in the last couple of days.
“We’ve tried to do what’s best for him and tonight Zac just jumped him out into a perfect trail. He was just phenomenal in the straight.”
Purton said the way Southern Legend overpowered his rivals and left them in his dust did not come as much of a surprise after he saw a surprising leader hurtling to the front.
“When I saw Singapore Sling take the lead, I was just waiting for him to die. Whenever he goes forward, he falls in a hole,” said Purton.
“He just set the race nicely for me. To me, they got their tactics wrong.
“Anyway, I had the perfect race in behind and just waited for the home turn to balance him up, and give ourselves more room, as we were on the Long Course.
“He went better than he did last year. To me, that was a much stronger win than last year.
“Caspar has done a great job with him. That was his career-best win, it was a great effort to come back from a disappointing run in Dubai and win the way he did here.”
While the Freedman camp was elated with Blizzard’s run, saying that he ran out of his skin – not to mention the windfall from the runner-up cut of the $1.5 million and the $100,000 bonus for being the first Singapore-based horse home (Debt Collector picked up $50,000 for being the second local horse across the line), the Millard camp accepted the defeat sportingly, having already put the run down to the wide barrier in their post-mortem.
“It’s the bad gate. There was no other option but to go forward,” said Beverly Millard, wife of the trainer.
“Karis said there was no pace on. If he takes a hold, he gets caught four wide, so he had to roll forward.
“He still did us proud with the way he fought on for third place.”