Countofmontecristo storms home in Chairman’s Trophy

Walker remains cautious after Countofmontecristo's hard Kranji Mile run.
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By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club

Short-priced favourite Countofmontecristo took out the $400,000 Group 2 Chairman’s Trophy (1600m) as expected on Saturday, but what was probably less expected was the come-from-behind manner of the win in the small nine-horse field.

The Michael Clements-trained smart galloper’s previous eight wins – between 1200m and 1400m – were mostly recorded after settling in the first few, but it is also true that as a younger horse, his natural speed was then being fully tapped on.

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With age and maturity, a shift to a drop-back pattern became more noticeable. At the Echoes Of Heaven six-year-old’s last win in the Group 2 Merlion Trophy (1200m) – which incidentally broke a drought of 14 losses since landing the Group 3 Jumbo Jet Trophy (1200m) in September 2017 – he came from midfield.

Of late as he was geared towards staying races, there was an even more pronounced proclivity for waiting tactics, his eye-catching third in the Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup (2000m) definitely earning him a swooper badge.

But given the relatively small field of this Saturday’s contest, and the fact he had drawn an alley, most pre-race speedmap calculations had him in and around the leaders.

At the half-mile mark, those who took on his $9 odds, were running out of fingernails to chew on.

He was ahead of only Mr Clint (Patrick Moloney) and What’s New (Michael Rodd), cooped up on the rails, and caught in a backwash of regressing horses.

The question whether first-time partner Louis-Philippe Beuzelin had erred in his tactics or had overestimated his mount’s ability must have flashed in a few persons’ heads.

It turned out that the French jockey had simply allowed himself to blend into a race that was surprisingly packed with pace in the first two furlongs, and then just trusted his horse to do the rest.

When the start was effected, they just flopped out of the gates, quickly finding themselves drifting at the rear as Loyalty Man (John Powell) clapped along upfront with Sun Marshal (Ruan Maia) in close attendance.

Beuzelin later admitted he did fret a little when the Kranji grandstand came into their line of sight, with Countofmontecristo, who was raring to go, still cluttered up on the rails when he should be set alight.

However, they were racing on the Long Course, and as they peeled off heels, slightly nudging Gold Strike (Alysha Collett) out of the way in the process, daylight finally broke through – a wide enough gap between Gold Strike and King Louis (Vlad Duric). Sun Marshal and veteran campaigner War Affair (Marc Lerner) had the first whiff of the top prize as they locked horns, but the complexion of the race was just about to be turned on its head.

Once rather tradesmanlike in the way he finished off, Countofmontecristo was a lot more expeditious in dispatching his rivals on Saturday. Like an unstoppable purple flash, he flew in to go and relegate Sun Marshal into second place by one length with Gold Strike staying on nicely for third another three-quarter length away. The winning time was 1min 34.57secs for the 1600m on the Long Course.

While Joe Singh’s champion was posting a fifth Group win (three Group 2’s and two Group 3’s) from nine wins, the Chairman’s Trophy was Beuzelin’s first silverware in Singapore. It came at his first association with a horse who has built a reputation of becoming a revolving door for jockeys – he was the 15th partner.

“I had done my homework and saw all his races. My main goal was to get him as relaxed as possible in the running,” said Beuzelin, who came to Kranji in August, with a globetrotting resume boasting around 300 winners, with the 2014 Group 1 Bangalore Derby (Agostini) the highest acclaim.

“I was only scared there wouldn’t be any speed and that’s why we thought we’d race handier at first. But they went really quick and I decided to drop back.

“However, I was a bit concerned there was no gap coming up at the 600m, and I was around horses who were stopping.

“I actually had to create the opening. Once he saw daylight, he showed he was a cut above the rest and went all the way.

“I knew he had the engine to do it, it was just a matter of getting the right run. Horses like him make our job easier.”

A first accolade at the highest level at his new stomping ground was exactly what the Barbadian-raised and British-trained jockey needed to exorcise the frustrating times on the sidelines through careless riding suspensions (13 meetings out in last three months).

“I’ve won a Group 1 in India, the Cesarewitch Handicap in UK (2010 aboard Aaim To Prosper), but this is my first Group win in Singapore. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Beuzelin whose 2020 tally of five winners does his riding polish more justice, three of them coming over the weekend (he won two races on Knight Love and Coming Through on Friday).

“I can’t afford to be suspended anymore. I still have the ride on Bold Thruster in the Group 3 Silver Bowl (1400m) in two weeks’ time (February 29).”

The flashy black Turffontein four-year-old is also prepared by Clements, who compared to Beuzelin, is a lot more accustomed to such limelight at Kranji, but the Zimbabwean-born handler was himself quite blown away by that 16th Group winner.

Winning trio beams for the camera: (from left) Joe Singh, Louis-Philippe Beuzelin and Michael Clements.

“The plan was to get back in midfield as we thought there wouldn’t be a lot of pace on paper,” said Clements.

“But there was a fast pace, and even though he got back further than we expected, it still worked out good.

“He’s a true genuine horse who always puts his best foot forward, but I think with maturity, he gets the mile whereas previously, it was a bit of a task.

“He settles better now, gets back and sprints home. I told Louis if he got further back today, don’t panic as he has been running on in his races.

“He rode him very well. Let’s hope he gets to stay on Countofmontecristo after that!”

Beuzelin has certainly done his chances of staying on no harm after such a ride, even if it was not for the faint-hearted, but though it’s a long shot, he might even have to pack his bags for the next gig. With Countofmontecristo nominated for the US$6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf (1800m) and US$1.5 million Group 2 Godolphin Mile (1600m) on dirt at Meydan on March 28, it will be interesting to see what will be the fallout in that regard in ensuing days.

While an invitation will hinge on the selection committee, Clements would rather not harbour any hope at this juncture even if the Chairman’s Trophy win was not a harmful addition to his resume when it lands on the Dubai Racing Club’s handicappers’ desk.

Singh for one was a lot more upbeat his horse would not be out of his depth against the best horse in the world in March.

“He had to win today to be considered. I hope we get an invite after today’s win,” said the movie-making businessman.

“I actually nominated three other horses – Gingerella, Eye Guy and Yabadabadoo – but Countofmontecristo is the only one with a chance on ratings. It’ll be either the Dubai Turf or the Godolphin Mile.”

While Dubai dreams can wait, Singh could not be prouder of what his stable star has achieved at home – nine wins, including five at Group level, and more than $1.9 million gained in prizemoney.