By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Champion apprentice jockey Simon Kok Wei Hoong can’t wait to jump back on one of his favourite horses in the $250,000 Group 2 Merlion Trophy (1200m) this Sunday, Augustano.
Kok and Augustano became a formidable duo last year when they chalked up three wins on the bounce, the last one coming in a Class 2 race over 1200m on his pet surface Polytrack on August 30, 2019. After the charmed run came to an end at their fourth partnership, they have not recombined since.
The Hard Spun six-year-old has raced six more times, failing to flatter each time. Trainer Lee Freedman has now decided to revisit the old winning formula in a bid to spark him up again.
“Mr Freedman told me he had a ride for me in the Group 2 race, and I found out he would put me on Augustano,” said Kok.
“I’m very happy to be reunited with a horse I had a lot of success with, especially in a Group 2 race. It’s been almost one year since I last rode him.
“Bold Thruster will be the favourite and will be hard to beat. There will be a lot of speed in the race, Augustano’s stablemate (Excelling) is also fast, and Zac Kasa will also go forward.
“Ideally, we can track up right behind and with a bit of luck, I hope he can reproduce his old form, but it’ll be a tough race.”
Kok, who began his riding career in 2018, has won only one feature race to-date, the Group 3 Jumbo Jet Trophy (1400m) on Star Emperor (now known as Exceed Natural) on July 28, 2019.
He got a big buzz out of Sunday’s second aboard Top Knight in the Group 1 Kranji Mile (1600m), even if he wished the race could have been a few metres longer.
“The horse really gave me a lot of confidence. We had a beautiful spot in the race,” said Kok.
“When we came up to get clear run from the 600m, we were tracking Aramaayo (the winner), whom I know well as I won once on him. He has a very nice turn of foot.
“I just kept my horse rolling, the engine was warming up nicely, and in the last 300m, he produced a strong finish. We just missed out, but another three or four more strides, we could have got there.”
Kok won’t have a say should the Michael Clements-trained son of Zoustar go one better at his ultimate goal, the $500,000 Singapore Derby (1800m) on September 6, simply because he was just warming up the saddle for Vlad Duric.
“Mr Clements already told me I was just filling in for Vlad because he was suspended. I rode Top Knight at his previous start as well, but that was because Vlad couldn’t make the weight (53.5kgs),” said Kok.
“Vlad was always meant to ride him in the Derby. That’s okay, as I will ride another good horse, too, Pax Animi.
“He’s an up-and-coming horse and is improving all the time.”
The Cliff Brown-trained galloper was never quite in the firing line after being caught wide in his last lead-up run (Class 2 race over the mile won by Minister), but still remains among the main hopes in the Singapore Derby.
Winning the Derby would be nice, but right now, Kok would just like to regain that rich vein of form that was his at his premiership-winning season in 2019.
The Ipoh-born rider began his defence title campaign well by establishing a comfortable margin earlier in the year, but his momentum has stalled a little since racing resumed from the COVID-19 three-month break on July 11.
He has ridden only two winners thus far, both Diamond Mine and Super Speed coming for his master Steven Burridge on July 26. That’s two winners in 48 rides for a strike rate of 4%, which is way below his usual standards of 20-25%.
“It’s been three weeks with no winners, but I was actually doing quite all right,” said Kok.
“I had many seconds, seven I think, and a few thirds. If some of those seconds had won, my score would have been much better.
“I think this year, it’s been harder to get outside rides. As it’s hard to find jockeys, my boss has been putting me on his horses more often, but in general, the support is about the same.”
There is also another major factor keeping Kok on his toes this season, Mark Walker’s rising apprentice jockey Hakim Kamaruddin.
After hitting the ground running from Day 1, the Malaysian rookie has been notching up winners at a regular rate, mostly for Walker, but his haul was still half of Kok’s when racing was suspended.
The dominance has, however, swung the other way at the restart. Hakim has almost doubled his haul with seven winners to sit on 15 winners, having cut Kok’s lead to only two.
Kok’s response to having someone breathing down his neck is a measure of the sportsman in him.
“Hakim has a big chance (of becoming champion) this year, especially as he gets support from a big stable like Mr Walker’s,” he said.
“I’m actually very happy for Hakim. He’s riding well and it’s good to have a local up-and-coming jockey.
“I can only do my best to hold on to my lead. It’ll be an exciting fight.”