Via Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Outsider Sun Marshal sprang a $120 surprise in Sunday’s $1 million Group 1 Singapore Derby (1800m) to hand champion trainer Lee Freedman his 12th Derby, and young Perth jockey Joseph Azzopardi his first, not to mention his absolute first Group 1 win.
An increasingly present player at Kranji for the last five years, wealthy Macau owner Cheng Ting Kong of Sun Bloodstock Racing Stable would also be a happy man after having tried to annex a Singapore Derby for a while. As has been the case at his previous Singapore-based wins, Mr Cheng was unfortunately not on hand to celebrate the momentous occasion.
A regular feature winner in Australia with the likes of Palentino in the 2016 Group 1 Makybe Diva Stakes and more recently Thronum in the 2018 Group 2 Australia Stakes, Mr Cheng had until then only one ‘black type’ race in Singapore in his trophy cabinet – the Desmond Koh-trained Order Of The Sun who dead-heated with Best Tothelign in the Group 3 Colonial Chief Stakes (1600m) in 2015.
There is, however, no doubt that glorious win in the third and final Leg of the prestigious Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge would eclipse the other Sun’s half-win, pun fully intended.
Going into the race, Sun Marshal was probably rated as Freedman’s second-or-third-best chance after Circuit Mission and Heliosphere from his quintet of runners that also featured Mr Clint and Super Dynasty – to hand the Australian Hall of Fame trainer a first Singapore Derby since he moved over in 2017, but which would round out a dozen all-up should he win.
Freedman’s 11 previous Derbies were won during his Australian reign of terror across states as diverse as Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania, with the most famous being no doubt his three AJC Australian Derby winners Naturalism (1992), Mahogany (1994) and Don Eduardo (2002).
Sun Marshal not only stretched that stunning record further, but pulled it off with a surprisingly reinvigorated Mr Clint (Bernardo Pinheiro) a neck away in second for a Freedman quinella for good measure.
“This is my 12th Derby, it just feels like another Derby, to be honest, but I don’t think the other Derbies were worth a million,” said an elated Freedman.
“I’m so rapt Mr Clint finished second-best.”
A former ward Mr Cheng had with Sydney’s premier trainers Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott when known as Han Xin, Sun Marshal had in six local starts stamped himself as a dependable middle-distance performer with two wins (1600m and 2000m) and three placings for Freedman.
In Australia where he raced nine times, spread across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for two wins (1600m and 2000m), Sun Marshal was labelled as an honest staying type who quickly earned a shot at ‘black type’ races in that genre, albeit without winning. He did finish second in the Group 3 Grand Prix (2200m) at Doomben last year, and interestingly, his last Australian run was an eighth in the Group 1 Queensland Derby (2200m) in June 2018, just under five lengths off the winner Dark Dream.
Maybe it was an omen where Sun Marshal would stand 13 months later, but even if he replicated his Australian form at his new South-East Asian base, the way he makes his own luck in front to just outlast his rivals by narrow margins did not really conjure up images of him battering his 15 rivals into oblivion in this year’s Singapore Derby renewal, even if it was to pundits one of the most even Derby fields ever assembled in recent memory.
When the heavens opened a couple of hours before the race, and the track subsequently turned sticky, a new element was flung into the equation, but Azzopardi would not be bogged down by such uncertainties, dispelling them with a masterpiece of a ride that steered the Sepoy four-year-old towards the thicker end of the prizemoney of the million-dollar race.
Always in the first half but three wide, Sun Marshal, who is out of Fantastic Light mare Mysterious Light, was among the few contenders who seemed to not resent the downgraded track, held comfortably together by Azzopardi throughout, while stablemate Circuit Mission (Michael Rodd) spearheaded the race, as half-expected from barrier one.
As the field approached the home turn, those who had tried to stay in touch with the lead were already flat out and paddling away. Among the better-fancied ones, Eye Guy (Ben Melham) and Quarter Back (Vlad Duric) were the first to show the white flag.
Two-leg runner-up Sacred Croix (Benny Woodworth) was the only one still left standing, but trainer Mark Walker had always cautioned that the biggest chink in the Savabeel four-year-old’s armour was a wet track.
At the 400m, the line between the swimmers and the sinkers became more distinct. Sacred Croix bravely tried to ping, but could not go on with the task at hand – to eventually run fifth, a superb effort under the circumstances for the long-time favourite.
It was Sun Marshal, who after being manoeuvred out into the clear on the outer by Azzopardi upon straightening, who was literally sailing home the best. Freedman’s first Group 1 winner Mr Clint (in last year’s Singapore Guineas) suddenly recaptured his three-year-old form as he sprouted wings from near-last to just miss out by a neck a feat that would have sent trivia buffs into overdrive – eight years ago, Clint (also raced by the Oscar Racing Stable, ridden by John Powell and trained by Cliff Brown) won the then Emirates-sponsored Singapore Derby.
Another horse who had lost a chunk of his fan base following some lacklustre/luckless runs, suddenly restored a lot of his old gloss with a brilliant performance that reflected a lot better his staying ability – King Louis.
Ridden by Perth ace William Pike, the Ricardo Le Grange-trained son of Medaglia d’Oro fleetingly loomed as a threat, but Sun Marshal proved just a touch too good on the day. He finished third another 1 ¼ lengths away with the winner clocking 1min 49.1secs for the 1800m on the Long Course.
“I thought his form was solid when he came to me. He ran second in the (Group 3) Grand Prix (2200m at Doomben in 2018), and ran very well first-up,” said Freedman.
“He improved after I gave him a month’s break. He was very fit, but I didn’t know how he would handle the ground today.
“But I have to say a lot of the horses’ chances were ruined by the ground, and some of them improved on it.
“I’ve always had a lot of time for Joe (Azzopardi) and I told him this horse would be his Derby horse. He’s done all the work on him.
“I’m glad for Mr Cheng, and I know Gai would be happy for me, too.”
While Freedman can be forgiven for being slightly blasé about a 12th Derby silverware, Azzopardi was on the other hand pinching himself as he was greeted to a triumphant welcome he had never experienced during his riding days in Perth.
The closest he came to Group 1 glory was a third place aboard the Adam Durrant-trained Kia Ora Koutou, by coincidence, in the Victoria Derby four years ago. The 24-year-old winning jockey of close to 400 races boasted until then two Group 3 wins in the 2017 WA Champion Fillies Stakes aboard Art Series and the 2018 Gimcrack Stakes aboard Agent Pippa as his career highlights.
“It feels unbelievable. I’ve just won my first Derby and my first Group 1 all in one hit,” said Azzopardi.
“It’s my first Group 1, I never even won a Group 2 before. Now I can skip the Group 2!
“The wet track was an unknown, but we knew all along he would stay the trip. I had a good trip throughout even if he was caught wide (after jumping from barrier No 12).
“The field was strung out a fair bit, and I pulled him out early as I wanted to let him go through the ground. He just outstayed them in the end.”
After dropping in a rearward spot from the awkward alley, Brown’s mare What’s New (Ben Thompson), who was aiming for a clean sweep after winning the first two Legs of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, the Group 3 Silver Bowl (1400m) and the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup (1600m), valiantly tried to dash up to the leaders inside the last 300m, but she could not quite match strides with the winner, eventually finishing a brave fourth, only around two-and-a-half lengths astern.
A local stakes earner of around $109,000 (besides the A$131,725 back in Australia) before Sunday, Sun Marshal has now multiplied that sum around sixfold after his Derby win.