By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
The last time Cliff Brown sold himself short over his superstar galloper Inferno, he was happy he was eventually proven wrong.
Last year, the Australian trainer famously played down his ability to condition juveniles. We know the rest: Inferno went on to blaze his way to the Singapore champion 2YO title.
The son of Holy Roman Emperor was again unrivalled in the Singapore Three-Year-Old Challenge this year, but in a season where rhyme and reason have been upended by a global pandemic no-one had seen coming, he will this Sunday feature among one of the contenders to the $400,000 Group 1 Lion City Cup (1200m).
The usual suspects for Singapore’s premier sprint feature are pure sprinters, and usually the older and more established household names. Three-year-old sprinters do take up the challenge, like Bold Thruster last year, but when they skip the Singapore Guineas.
But with COVID-19 having turned the racing calendar upside down, the Lion City Cup was rescheduled from May to October, meaning that Inferno found himself presented with the opportunity to contest it, fresh from his Singapore Guineas win.
Taking the road less travelled was not a risk Brown could take at the drop of a hat. Any rash decision could prove costly, especially to such a precious charge whose potential they had not got to the bottom of yet.
The Group 1 Raffles Cup (1600m) two weeks away on October 10 was a legitimate target for a horse who was distinctly more of a miler – and potentially further in later years – but the short interval between runs was a concern.
The Lion City Cup on October 25 was the next alternative. The drop back from the mile to 1200m was a major deterrent, but at the same time, the additional two weeks worked better for him.
Even though Brown has gone with the latter, self-doubt has crept into the self-proclaimed pessimist yet again.
“I think it was not very clever on my part to run him in the Lion City Cup,” he said.
“We haven’t mapped out a programme to that race to start with. The two weeks to the Raffles Cup was not ideal, I had no other choice but to run him in the Lion City Cup – or there would be nothing else for him.
“By the same token, dropping him from 1600m to 1200m while running against high-class seasoned sprinters will make it very tough.
“The last straw was when he drew 16 from 16. There are not many happy stories to that race for him, that’s for sure.”
With a field replete with hardened sprinters like Fame Star, Excelling, not to mention fellow four-year-old Mr Malek and his own stablemate Zac Kasa, Brown has every reason to be cautious about an eighth win from nine starts, and a second Group 1 silverware after the Singapore Guineas for Barree Stable’s Glenn Whittenbury’s new pride and joy.
“There are some very good horses in that race. Grand Koonta has a nice turn of foot and is a strong chance,” he said.
“Excelling, he’s a lovely horse and will have every chance from barrier 2. Fame Star is also a very good sprinter, and he loves the turf.
“And what about Mr Malek? He’s a very good horse, he missed the Guineas and he’s had six weeks between runs, he’ll be fresh and ready for that race.
“Surpass Natural was dominant when he won (three starts back), and he would be half a chance. He’s also drawn well in three.
“And let’s not forget our own Zac Kasa. He was fantastic at his last start (closing third to Grand Koonta), and he’s going really good.
“However, he’s also drawn badly (13), but he’s working really good.”
The six-year-old grey by Reset loomed ominously at his last start in a Class 1 race over 1200m on September 26, but had to eventually settle for third place to Grand Koonta. He will be partnered by veteran Malaysian jockey Azhar Ismail, whom Brown has been using a fair bit of late since the winning pick-up ride aboard In All His Glory one month ago.
Brown could not fault Inferno’s prep either, even if the new Kranji sensation leaves his best for the races.
“Inferno is not a flash worker, but he’s well within himself,” he said.
“He had his last gallop on Tuesday, and it’s all good. Vlad rode him.
“There was no other option but to run him in the Lion City Cup. It’s not ideal, and let’s not forget he’s been beaten before (Class 2 race over 1200m when upstaged into second place by Siam Warrior back in February).
“He was drawn wide then and it was the same scenario as this Sunday. It’s going to be a big test for him.”