First Group 1 win for Lerner with Makanani in Raffles Cup

Makanani (Marc Lerner, blue hood) springs a major upset in the Group 1 Raffles Cup on Sunday.
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Via Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club

French jockey Marc Lerner claimed his first Group 1 success when he piloted Makanani to a stirring nose-win in the $800,000 Group 1 Raffles Cup (1600m) on Sunday.

The son of trainer Carlos Lerner is a relative newbie in this line, having only plied his trade for seven years for an overall haul of around 250 winners, first cutting his teeth at amateur level before rapidly soaring through the riding ranks among the professionals in France, US and Germany.

Up until Sunday, the 2012 French champion apprentice jockey’s best wins had come in Germany in the Group 2 Goldene Peitsche aboard Donnerschlag in 2016 and the Group 2 Meilen Trophy aboard Dragon Lips in 2017.

Without taking anything away from those career highlights, no doubt equally meaningful in their own right for Lerner, there is every chance the 28-year-old jockey will remember his first Group 1 win in Singapore a touch better – besides the fact that Raffles Cup is easier to pronounce!

“It’s my first Group 1 win! I can’t believe it,” said an emotional Lerner as he led Makanani into the winner’s stall, greeted to a rapturous welcome from the Big Valley Stable entourage headed by owner Masa Otani’s wife Yuki.

“The closest I’ve come to winning a Group 1 was the Preis von Europa at Cologne in 2016 with a horse called Red Cardinal (second to Nightflower). It’s also run in September (with that near-miss coming on September 25, 2016 almost three years to the day).

“My dad has won Group 1 races with Anabaa Blue, Volvoreta, Mille Et Mille, among others, and my brother Yann (former jockey and now assistant-trainer to Carlos) has won many Group 2’s and 3’s, but not a Group 1.

“So, it’s a first Group 1 in the Lerner family as a jockey, but not as a trainer. My dad has also won a few Group 1 races as an owner of trotters.”

After composing himself, Lerner was able to take us through the race. He said the battle plan for Makanani was basically to keep her buried in midfield and let her come into her own inside the last two furlongs – and if she is good enough, she will be in the mix.

Lerner, who had already combined with Takaoka for a win aboard favourite Pisca in the $30,000 Flax 2012 Stakes, a Class 5 Division 2 race over 1400m, followed those tactics to the letter, easing off the speed when Eye Guy (Vlad Duric) came across from his wide gate to lead from Preditor (John Powell) at a good clip.

Eye Guy had already burnt out upon straightening, but Preditor was still showing plenty of ticker as he went hard up against the rails, two lengths clear.

Once Makanani ($93) found daylight, she started to build up into her full rhythm as she proceeded to bridge the gap, ears all pinned back. Preditor hung on for dear life, but 200m out, Shane Baertschiger’s gallant warrior was at the mercy of a gaggle of swoopers attacking the line simultaneously.

Longshot Safeer (Benny Woodworth) and Makanani were the ones with the sharpest bite as they poked their heads in front, only to be caught up late by a yellow howitzer out of nowhere, Mr Clint (Bernardo Pinheiro), for almost like a Groundhog Day of his eye-catching run in the Singapore Derby when he rattled home to just fall short of Sun Marshal by a neck.

To many, it looked like the Lee Freedman-trained Mr Clint, with the greater momentum on the outside, might have gone one better this time, but the judge’s photo is the final verdict.

Winning connections of the Group 1 Raffles Cup: (from left) Owner Mdm Yuki Otani, jockey Marc Lerner and trainer Hideyuki Takaoka. 

It was that Japanese-French connection that has struck again! Makanani had clung on by the skin of his teeth from Mr Clint with Safeer third another short head away. The winning time was 1min 34.2secs for the mile on the Short Course, 0.59 second outside the record set by Super Ninetyseven in 2013.

“She enjoyed a good run throughout. We just had to make sure she settles as she pulled too hard at her last run (second to I’m Incredible in the Group 3 Committee’s Prize over 1600m), said Lerner who, thanks to the riding double, has climbed into the Top 5 for the first time on 27 winners.

“At the top of the straight, I had a lapful under me and I knew she would be right there at the finish. She fought her heart out, it was all her heart that got her over the line.

“To be honest, I thought Mr Clint beat us on the outside, but when I saw No 15 go up and Nick Child (Singapore Turf Club race commentator) walk to me with his microphone, I felt a joy I just can’t explain.

“I’ve been in Singapore for more one year now, and at one stage, I felt like going back to Germany or France. If not for Mr Takaoka, I would have gone back.

“When Olivier Placais left Singapore at the end of last year, he recommended me to Takaoka as their rider and he’s supported me since. Things have picked up since and we’ve had many winners together, so I have to thank Olivier as well.

“Mr Takaoka has prepared this mare to the minute. He is a training genius and I also have to pay tribute to his assistant-trainer and senior track rider Ryo (Hatano) who rides this mare every day.

“He does all the work on her, and I’m just the pilot, but she was well prepared and she will be even better in the Gold Cup. I’m off to watch the Grand Prix now (he had no rides after the Raffles Cup), we’ll celebrate there, but I guess it will all sink in tomorrow.”

It is doubtful the soft-spoken Takaoka will be partaking in the same F1 party with Lerner, but the Japanese handler, who has had many of his horses run past the Group 1 chequered flag at Kranji, the last being Placais on Jupiter Gold in last year’s (July) Emirates Singapore Derby, was quietly soaking in this latest training triumph.

“Last time Makanani overraced. I told Marc to settle her in midfield with cover if possible today, and let her run relaxed,” said Takaoka who was at his first Raffles Cup win in 17 years of training at Kranji.

“She’s not the sort to race keenly, but I think on that day (in the Committee’s Prize), nobody wanted to lead, and when she found herself alone in front, she started to pull.

“Marc rode her very patiently and timed the run very well. It was a close call, and I was so relieved when the photo went our way.

“I did not run her in the El Dorado Classic (2000m) last Friday (in which his Star Jack ran a super second to I’m Incredible), because with her 93 rating, she would have carried too much weight against those lightweight horses.

“At least, she is at level weights in the Raffles Cup and she even gets a 1.5kg allowance for being a mare. The 1600m is not an issue as she’s always been good over the mile and upwards.”

The Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (1800m) on October 20 is the second Leg of the Singapore Triple Crown series, of which the Raffles Cup is the first Leg, and the Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup (2000m) is the third and last Leg on November 10.

Takaoka is of course widely known as a Singapore Gold Cup guru for having laid his hands on the time-honoured trophy four times (El Dorado in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and Better Life in 2012) even if in those days, the famous handicap feature race was run over 2200m.

Now that Makanani, a Japanese-bred five-year-old mare by Black Tide, has proven her staying chops in elite company, a fifth gilt-edged dream would not be in the realms of impossibility for Takaoka and Otani, who raced El Dorado.

“I’m very happy for Mr Otani who is a big owner and has been a strong supporter of mine for a long time,” said Takaoka.

“He has a very good mare in Makanani. The Gold Cup is now her main target, but she will also run in the QEII Cup first.”

Makanani has now taken her record to seven wins and three seconds from 29 starts for stakes earnings that have shot past the $800,000 mark for Otani, who was unfortunately not on hand on Sunday, but was represented by wife Yuki