Via Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Exciting US galloper Fame Star defied his sprinter archetype tag to claim the $400,000 Group 2 EW Barker Trophy (1400m), but still triggered rapturous screams of “American speed baby!” from part-owner Melvyn Ezekiel on Friday night.
The US-based Singaporean-born bloodstock agent, who runs the Kadima Stable in partnership with brother Michael, purchased the US-bred Twirling Candy four-year-old at the Ocala Sales in Florida two years ago.
He kept a share in the sprinter to be raced at Kranji with trainer John O’Hara while getting Constance Cheng of Toast Trusts Stable on board for the remaining shares.
Seven wins with the last five scored in a row, from Restricted Maiden to Group 2 glory in the space of 16 months, have certainly added another sound advertisement to Ezekiel’s (he is known for being behind other handy Kranji-based US-breds such as Emerald Hill, Speedy Dragon, Rapido Star, to name a few) eye for spotting a good horse, especially those from the speed genes pool.
Bought for a song at only US$40,000, Fame Star has also proven to be good value for money, having now more than recouped his capital outlay with more than $550,000 in prizemoney gained from his haul of seven wins and seven placings from 16 starts.
It was well worth the price of the air-ticket as well for Ezekiel, who had flown in from America during the week, especially for the EW Barker Trophy. While he raced many smart sorts like Emerald Hill and Flash Gift under the Saratoga Stable at Kranji in the past, Friday’s win was his first-ever silverware.
Cheng was for her part winning her first Group 2 race, having previously landed the Group 3 Paititi Gold Trophy with Makkura in 2013. The smart mare was trained by Laurie Laxon and was ridden by Saifudin Ismail.
“It’s my first Group win as an owner. What a thrill as I came all the way especially to see Fame Star run in the EW Barker, and he’s won!” said Ezekiel, who is a Eurasian born in Singapore, but of Jewish Iraqi origin.
“It’s also great he won that race as I do know some members of the Barker family as well.
“Though he had never won over 1400m before, I never doubted he could see it out. His daddy (Twirling Candy) is the record holder of 1400m at Santa Anita!
“But to me, it’s all about American speed, baby! He’ll be even better next year as he’s still maturing and he will be even better over 1400m.”
Ezekiel also pulled some strings in the jockey selection after regular partner, leading apprentice jockey Simon Kok Wei Hoong (aboard at his previous four-in-a-row) was rubbed out for careless riding.
“The French jockeys are very good at riding fast horses on a long rein in the US. We have Flavien Prat, Florent Geroux, Julien Leparoux, and it was only logical I picked Marc Lerner for the ride, though I had never met him before,” he said.
“Marc rated him to perfection. At the top of the straight, I knew he still had a lapful.”
The French jockey, who was at a riding double having scored earlier on the Jerome Tan-trained Mig Pierro ($16) in the $50,000 Lim’s Cruiser 2016 Stakes, a Class 4 Division 3 race over 1200m, was for his part pinching himself at the winner’s rostrum.
Last year this time, the 28-year-old son of French trainer Carlos Lerner was struggling to get rides, let alone winners, but 2019 has been a complete turnaround of fortunes.
Not only does the former German-based jockey of Argentinian origin sit in fifth spot on 37 winners, but he also recently won his first Group 1 race in the Raffles Cup (1600m) with the mare trained by his biggest supporter and instrumental to his success, Hideyuki Takaoka, Makanani, and whom he will ride in the Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup (2000m) on Sunday.
“I can’t believe it. I won another Group 2, but my first in Singapore,” said Lerner, who until he came to Singapore in September, 2018, boasted the Group 2 Goldene Peitsche aboard Donnerschlag in 2016 and the Group 2 Meilen Trophy aboard Dragon Lips in 2017 as his highest acclaims on his resume.
“It was my first time riding Fame Star, but of course, I know what he’s done here, even if this was his biggest test. He won mostly from the front with Simon Kok, but over 1400m tonight, the instructions were to let him run along by himself.
“As he has a high cruising speed, the idea was to just let him stride where he was comfortable, if someone else wants to lead, just take a sit. In the end, he landed in front, but I was able to get him to run relaxed.
“There were horses around him, but there was no pressure, he was always on the bridle. I waited for him to take a breather before asking him to go again, and he responded with a strong kick.”
The capacity field actually had some fleet-footed customers in the midst, such as Tesoro Privado, Nepean and Biraz, but except for the latter, they were all drawn out, and it was in the end last year’s EW Barker Trophy winner, Mister Yeoh (John Powell) who came upsides.
However, his presence didn’t soften up the US-bred sprinter as could be seen when he went through his gears the moment Lerner gave him the office upon straightening.
Mister Yeoh stuck on for a while, but soon caved in, leaving it to Webster (Jessica Eaton) to try and shoot down the “Star”, while Raffles Cup third placegetter Safeer (Daniel Moor) was also poking his head in, but it was to no avail.
Under Lerner’s trademark continental saddle-bumping riding style, Fame Star dug down deep and was hanging in for dear life, while a late scare was rattling home in the shape of a grey flash on the outside, Grand Koonta (Alysha Collett).
From a midfield berth, the Irish-bred son of Dark Angel put in the big bounds, lunged at the post, but Fame Star was able to scrape home by a head. Webster tacked on to finish a close third another half-length away.
Way under the odds at $58, Fame Star clocked the smart time of 1min 21.48secs for the 1400m on the Short Course, 0.9 second outside the record established by Super Ninetyseven in 2013.
O’Hara, who had not won a ‘black type’ event since his former champion Spalato won the Group 2 Merlion Trophy (1200m) in March 2016, was rapt with the return to the limelight, even if he had to give the race a miss because of a root canal!
“I couldn’t be at Kranji tonight, I had a dental appointment for the second phase of my root canal,” said the Singaporean handler.
“It was held at night while the race was being run. An owner sent me the footage later and I was then able to see the win.
“I’m very happy for Constance as she’s always wanted a Cup horse. She’s always tried to get something like this horse and it’s good she got it in the end.
“Of all the owners, she deserves it the most as she puts so much money in Singapore racing. I’m also very happy for Mel.
“Special thanks to (assistant-trainer) Steve Crutchley as he’s managed this horse and Constance’s other horses so well.
“Fame Star has always been a good horse, but I think he’s come back a better horse after a short break.
“He matured mentally and has now scored five in a row. After he ran second in a 1400m race two runs before the break, I knew he could run out a strong 1400m, and to me, he is bred to go over a mile.
“Based on his timing, I told Steve he could run below the 1min 22secs tonight. This horse is a real asset to the stable.
“He will go for break now and we will then set him for the Lion City Cup next year.”
Singapore’s premier Group 1 sprint race over 1200m will be run on May 23 next year, on the same night as the Invitational Group 1 Kranji Mile (1600m).
Crutchley said he wasn’t 100% sure the photo had gone Fame Star’s way when Grand Koonta flew home late to finish locked together with his charge, but the Kiwi horseman was glad their number was semaphored, bringing an end to the days of stress he had to endure in the build-up to the EW Barker Trophy.
“I wasn’t sure he won. It’s brilliant, what a horse!” he said as he headed out for the lead-in.
“To be honest, before the race, I was only worried about the change of rider. I didn’t know if Marc would suit his style of running, but he rode him great and the rest is history.
“At his last gallop, we put Charger up by his side, but it didn’t annoy him at all. That was a good sign he could take the pressure.
“He’s a good horse to do what he did, win five in a row and now he’s won a Group 2 race for Constance and Melvyn. He’s going for a well-deserved break now.
“There is a great team behind us. Unfortunately, John is having his tooth pulled, but we’ll have to drag Michelle Mok (O’Hara’s second assistant-trainer) out for the photo as well.”
O’Hara said he had already watched the race replays countless times after he returned home, even though his tooth was still giving him excruciating pain.
“The procedure wasn’t without pain and it’s still very painful, but Fame Star’s win tonight is the best painkiller!” he said.
Unfortunately, there was another sore point to come out from the brilliant win. Lerner later copped a one-month suspension for not wearing a body protector when weighing out for the ride on Fame Star, who was handicapped at 54kgs.
Unless Lerner appeals, the 2019 season is over for him as the suspension begins from Monday only to end on December 10, two days after the last race meeting of the year.