By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Progressive sprinter Excelling was the main beneficiary from an earnest speed battle in and around him when he emerged the freshest horse on the scene en route to a well-calculated victory in the $250,000 Group 2 Merlion Trophy (1200m) on Sunday.
Trained by Lee Freedman, the Manhattan Rain six-year-old had steadily been scaling through his grades with four wins up to Class 2 level at Kranji, mostly scored in his favourite leading tactics.
But, somehow, most thought a stab at the elite class under weight-for-age conditions might be one bridge too far at this stage.
Hence the generous $130 odds, but most probably lengthened up further by the presence of Bold Thruster, the hot favourite of the annual Polytrack feature.
Freedman was about the only one who believed, and when jockey A’Isisuhairi Kasim, Freedman’s new blue-eyed boy, took a drop instead of capitalising on his barrier No 1 to vie for the lead, that turned out to be the manoeuvre that would upend all his rivals at the business end, including Bold Thruster.
As Excelling settled into his ground-saving bubble onto the fence, almost two-thirds of the field were jostling and punching out for position at a cracking pace, with Zac Kasa (Ruan Maia) just a peg off the helter skelter.
Stablemate Augustano (Simon Kok Wei Hoong) took up the leading role in the back straight but was immediately besieged by three speed chasers spread abreast, Surpass Natural (Juan Paul van der Merwe), My Dreamliner (Azhar Ismail) and – to his backers’ and connections’ horror – Bold Thruster (Louis-Philippe Beuzelin) facing the breeze the widest.
The order and frenetic pace varied little to the home turn where Beuzelin decided it was time to leave that nightmarish trip astern.
The French jockey pushed the throttle to the max, but Bold Thruster, probably softened up by that wide trip burning precious petrol, could not quite draw clear. Surpass Natural was still in the mix but after the last-start winner rolled out, a gap appeared that Excelling dived through in no time.
Having economised all his horsepower during that soft run in transit, Freedman’s protégé was full of running when set alight by A’Isisuhairi.
In two to three bounds, he shot one length clear, but Surpass Natural and Bold Thruster didn’t throw in the towel so easily as they whacked away and did nibble at the lead a little, but they were in the end both beaten fair and square by an Excellent sprinter.
Bold Thruster lunged to claim the first prize for minor placings half-a-length away, beating Surpass Natural by a head, leaving to the imagination what could have been the final result if he had swapped barriers with the winner.
Luck is often a part of such equations in horse racing, even off the tracks before horses set hoof in a race, as Freedman recalled after Excelling gave him his sixth Group success at Kranji.
“I would like to pay tribute to Constance Cheng. I bought that horse for her but she decided not to take him, and that’s when I found other owners for him,” said Freedman.
The Australian Hall of Fame trainer was certainly in a thankful mood as he continued heaping praise to the high heavens.
“I’d also like to thank Shane Baertschiger. He’s the one who told me I’d be mad not to run Excelling in the Merlion Trophy, thanks Shane!” he added in a nod to last Sunday’s Kranji Mile-winning trainer (Aramaayo).
On the way the race unfolded, the master tactician revealed it was always the intention to ride the former two-time Australian winner (Gosford and Kembla Grange, both over 1200m, when prepared by Joseph Pride) colder in spite of marble one.
“He had the winkers on to focus him up, but I didn’t know if they would work,” he said.
“We actually raced him held up for a run before and he nearly won last year (fast-finishing third to Fame Star in a Class 3 sprint race).”
A’Isisuhairi, who was capturing his second Group feature after he won the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup aboard Siam Blue Vanda earlier in the year, said his confidence kept growing during the race.
“Mr Freedman actually didn’t like barrier No 1. He told me he’d leave it to me, but he would prefer I jump and get cover,” said the Malaysian hoop.
“I didn’t want to go forward as I know Augustano would roll forward. When I saw the speed battle in front, with Bold Thruster caught four wide, I was happy my own horse was travelling relaxed.
“Bold Thruster is such a good horse that he can kick again, though, but all I needed for my horse was to see daylight at the right time. The way he was travelling, if I could get the run, I believe he could kick home.
“I knew he was super fit as Mr Freedman knows how to get his horses ready. He told me he was quite happy with his condition before the race.
“As soon as I found the gap, he quickened through nicely, but I was a bit worried when I saw Bold Thruster on the outside.
“I asked myself, ‘will I get this race?’, but luckily, my horse kept going. I had just won my second Group 2 race for the year.
“My aim has always been to win at least one Group race (a statistic he has proudly maintained since his first full year as an apprentice jockey in 2013 – Trudeau in the Group 2 EW Barker Trophy) per season, and I won two now.
“In terms of wins, I set a target of 15 wins and I’ve hit it today. It’s all about opportunities, I’ve been riding some nice horses lately.
“If I keep getting the same support, my next target is to win the local champion jockey title.”
That award was introduced last year with Benny Woodworth the first recipient on 69 winners, with A’Isisuhairi some gap away in fourth place on 18 winners.
Woodworth still leads this year on 16 winners, but while it’s too soon to speculate, with A’Isisuhairi snapping at his heels one winner behind, the momentum might have swung a little in favour of the Kelantan-born jockey this year.
With that fifth win in 10 starts, Excelling has seen his stakes earnings shoot past the $300,000 mark for his lucky connections.