By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Top Knight made full use of the entire length of Kranji’s long home straight to score an absolute thriller in Saturday’s $500,000 Group 1 Singapore Derby (1800m), incidentally handing trainer Michael Clements and jockey Vlad Duric their first hurrahs in the glamour race – and an early birthday present for the latter!
As is his customary racing pattern, Top Knight came from last to unleash that signature turn of foot of his – not quite electric, but more like a pulsating and sustained acceleration that gathers momentum with every stride, but often hits its peak too late as has been in the case in his recent outings.
If he was looking to turn the tables of his last-start conqueror Aramaayo in the Group 1 Kranji Mile three weeks ago, that was already taken care of at the 400m this time around.
Despite Ruan Maia’s urgings, Aramaayo looked to be paddling up in the one spot in fifth place.
But an upwardly mobile Top Knight, set alight by Duric after whipping around the whole 14-horse field, still had a few tough customers to pass.
As predicted by most, former UK-based stayer Minister (A’Isisuhairi Kasim) led, and seemed to be revelling in the rain-affected track, but could not quite come up with a counterattack when big roughie Elite Incredible (Joseph See) came serving it up to him halfway around the bend, with Minister’s stablemate Ocean Crossing (Juan Paul van der Merwe) further out three wide.
Following an ordinary run last week, most had written off Elite Incredible, Cliff Brown’s second-stringer after Pax Animi (Simon Kok Wei Hoong), but they had forgotten a little too quickly that the Argentinian-bred entire by Valid Stripes ran a mighty second to Top Knight in the Group 1 Singapore Guineas, the third Leg of the Singapore Three-Year-Old Challenge, last year.
As it turned out, the final stoush more than a year later in the corresponding last pin of the Singapore Five-Year-Old Challenge (adjusted version to accommodate Southern Hemisphere-bred five-year-olds after the remaining two Legs were held after August 1), the Singapore Derby, would be thrashed out between the same two horses!
At the last furlong pole, Elite Incredible was still showing plenty of cheek even if Top Knight was looming large on the outside, albeit with his typical tendency to lug in under pressure.
For a second, Elite Incredible gave the amazing impression he could exact revenge on his Singapore Guineas victor – and incredibly, give the underrated See (hardly rides in feature races, let alone winning one) his biggest win – but Duric lifted his willing mount across the line in his usual powerful whip-wielding riding style, as they got up by a neck right in front of a gallant Elite Incredible, who certainly must be applauded for the way he went down fighting.
After doing all the bullocking work, Minister acquitted himself well with a third place another two lengths away, just holding off Clements’ second-best chance Siam Blue Vanda (Louis-Philippe Beuzelin) into fourth place by a neck. The winning time was 1min 48.79secs for the 1800m on the Long Course, almost 2 ½ seconds outside the course record of 1min 46.31secs held by Superb 10 years ago.
Aramaayo had every chance, but just didn’t have that same Kranji Mile swagger. Shane Baertschiger’s charge still battled on well to finish fifth, while the likes of Churchill (Benny Woodworth, eighth) and Pax Animi (ninth) ran below expectations.
The longest-serving expatriate trainer in Singapore after he moved from Zimbabwe to Kranji in 1998, Clements was rapt he was finally adding a Singapore Derby silverware to his trophy cabinet.
“I won my first Group 1 with Alibi in the Patron’s Bowl in 2017, and then Top Knight won the Singapore Guineas last year, but this is the Derby, it’s great,” said Clements.
“Top Knight was exactly where I wanted him to be. He saw them all, but was not too far behind, it was a compact field.
“We always felt he’d be happier with the extra distance. At his last couple of runs, we didn’t see him at his best as he clearly wanted more ground.
“In saying this, I would say the 1800m seems to be about his limit. At this stage, I don’t think he’s a 2000m horse, even if we might be inclined to run him in a race like the Singapore Gold Cup later on in the year.
“Vlad also rode a great race. He knows that horse so well, and timed his run to perfection.
“I thought Siam Blue Vanda put up a much better run today. I haven’t had a chance to speak to Louis, but I thought he did well to hold on for a fourth place.
“I’m not sure if he goes well on a ground like that, but I know Top Knight likes it a lot. As for On Line, he was trapped wide, and Matthew Kellady said he didn’t feel comfortable in the sticky ground.
“In any case, I would say they are all going for a break now. They fully deserved it.”
Not only was Duric unwrapping an early birthday gift, two days before he turns 43 on Monday, but it also came with other happy returns in the shape of a fantastic five-timer coming off the back of a four-timer last week. Top Knight was capping a memorable day after Hard Too Think, Well Deserved, In All His Glory and Smoke And Mirrors saluted earlier on the undercard.
With his Saturday bumper crop, Duric (48 winners) has extended his lead to 16 winners on Maia (32 winners), who, thanks to a hat-trick of wins (Boomba, Hardcore and King’s Command) is keeping Duric in his sights.
With three months left in a season truncated by the COVID-19-induced three-month break from April to June, it might be premature to make premiership predictions, but if there is to be a two-horse race, chances are it will be the Duric-Maia show that will keep us on tenterhooks.
The gap might narrow after the three-time Singapore champion jockey copped a two-day suspension for careless riding for his winning ride aboard Hard Too Think, a blow that certainly soured the note a little, but still couldn’t take Duric off cloud nine.
He just won his first Singapore Derby, but to him, the real joy was to win with a horse who has clearly endeared himself to him. The Australian hoop has now ridden half of the Zoustar five-year-old’s eight wins, including the Guineas.
“It’s been a great day – my first Derby and five winners, but I’m above all so rapt for that little horse, he’s been so fantastic to me in the last couple of seasons,” said the 2007 Caulfield Cup-winning jockey (Master O’Reilly).
“I’m rapt he’s won another Group 1 race after the Guineas. He’s a super little horse, and I’m so pleased for Michael Clements, for (assistant-trainer) Michael ‘Chopsy’ White and for Krit (Chittaseni), the owner of Falcon Racing Stable.
“Today, he relaxed beautifully, which he has always done, but the addition of winkers was a masterstroke of genius from Chopsy. He travelled so well from the 1000m to the top of the straight, he hasn’t done that before.
“When I pulled him out, I was a bit worried at one stage when they slowed up the tempo quite considerably. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to pick them up.
“Lee’s (Freedman) horses (Minister and Ocean Crossing) skipped down the hill, they got quite a fair way off, but to this bloke’s credit, he really quickened down the straight.
“What a great effort by the second horse (Elite Incredible). He was very competitive in the Guineas, but he was probably the horse I didn’t see fighting out the finish today.
“But my horse is so genuine, he’s such a trier. You put him on anything, and he’ll get through.
“The 1600m to 1800m are probably his perfect trips, he doesn’t have to go further. There will be Weight-for-Age races over those trips later in the year, and he’ll be hard to beat.”
Pending further riches, Top Knight has for now chalked up a stellar record of eight wins, six seconds and one third in 17 starts for prizemoney that has now hit around the $1.5 million mark for Thai outfit Falcon Racing Stable.