By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Classy galloper Top Knight ploughed through the rain-soaked track at Kranji to ‘swim’ away to an impressive win in the $400,000 Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (1800m) on Saturday.
Under a heavy downpour and close to zero visibility, Michael Clements’ sole runner in the second Leg of the Singapore Triple Crown series made light of these extreme track and weather conditions to still stamp his undeniable class at the business end.
Whipping up the rear for most of the way, Top Knight only started to get a wriggle-on from the 800m, but alarmingly, still stood the leaders Elite Incredible (Matthew Kellady) and Minister (Ryan Munger) around 15 lengths at such a crucial stage of the race.
But the five-year-old son of Zoustar grew fins and flippers the moment champion jockey Vlad Duric flicked on the amphibious mode button – and his fog lights as well.
While most struggled to see him picking his way through the pea soup, Top Knight had made up much of the deficit by the home turn, albeit still a fair way from coming within striking distance.
Or so it seemed because even on TV monitors, which most patrons, including trainers, had switched to given it was bucketing down from their usual vantage point at the outdoors stands, the full picture was hard to work out.
For most of the home straight, Top Knight, who was backed down to $17 favouritism, along with other swoopers like Aramaayo (Ruan Maia) and Mr Clint (John Powell) had dropped out of camera with the focus on the leading pack, which, uncannily, was highly reminiscent of the concluding stages of the first Leg, the Group 1 Raffles Cup (1600m) three weeks ago.
In a scene of déjà vu, the same Lee Freedman trio of Minister, Sun Marshal (A’Isisuhairi Kasim) and Loyalty Man (Azhar Ismail) were wrestling it out for first prize, but again, their hard graft would be in vain.
It was only inside the last 200m that Mr Clint, a noted mudlark clearly revelling in the wet track, was the first to ‘re-emerge’ into the camera frame, but he still looked safely held by stablemate Minister.
Out of nowhere, a mud-splattered horse and jockey with hues of light blue suddenly popped onto the screen as they came thundering home, literally blowing their rivals out of the water to hold court with a two-length victory.
But for the handful who had braved the rain to watch the race unfurl off TV, they would have first-hand seen Top Knight’s uninterrupted and relentless gallop from a much longer way out.
Duric also needed wipers for most of the 1800m trip, and while he decried the bog track and also thought he was all at sea at the half-mile, he soon gained that ironclad confidence he was sitting on a winner the moment Top Knight was steered towards the better part of the track into the home straight.
After a hot shower and a good blow-dry, the three-time Singapore champion jockey hailed the three-time Group 1 winner as a ‘little ripper’ even when the elements wreaked havoc.
“Earlier in the day, when I went out for the race on Hwasong (Race 6), there was no rain, but as soon as we got on the horse, it started to rain,” recalled Duric.
“When we jumped out, I couldn’t see a thing and had to wipe my goggles six times, but we still finished third.
“After that, I was better prepared for Top Knight’s race. I wore two sets of goggles, but the vision was still pretty poor and the track was so waterlogged.
“But luckily, I was able to follow Aramaayo during the race, and my horse relaxed so well for me. I just had to coax him along in the ground.
“He didn’t spend a penny, but from the 600m to 700m mark, when they quickened up, he needed a couple of 100 metres to get going.
“When I came out wide and took him to the fresher ground on the outside, that’s where he felt more comfortable and switched leads.
“Actually, quite a few years back, we used to go on the outside when it rained like that. It was at the back of my mind there would be a little bit of nicer ground there and that would help him.
“We were so far back I first thought we would run nowhere, but at the 600m, I thought I could run sixth or seventh. Then, I thought we might run third into the straight, but five or six strides later, I already knew I would win easy.
“He’s such a little ripper to ride, he’s given me three Group 1 wins (Singapore Guineas and Singapore Derby being the other two).
“I’m just so grateful to Mike, (assistant-trainer Michael White) Chopsy and (owner) Krit (Chisatteni) for being so loyal to me for this horse.”
Minister ran out of his skin, but was overthrown again, and for the second time by Top Knight after the Singapore Derby last month, settling for second place with Mr Clint in third place another neck away.
The winning time was 1min 52.33secs, more than six seconds outside Superb’s 10-year-old record of 1min 46.31secs and almost 3.5 seconds slower than his own timing in the Singapore Derby.
In an annus mirabilis where Clements has swept six Group races, including two at Group 1 level to round up his total Group 1 career tally in Singapore to four (Alibi’s Patron’s Bowl in 2018 was the first), that 49th win (he won earlier with Big Hearted for a double) has taken him even closer to a first Singapore champion title in his 25 years at Bukit Timah and Kranji.
He is now nine winners clear of reigning champion trainer Mark Walker, who for the fifth meeting in a row, came home empty-handed.
And as if it doesn’t get any better than this, Top Knight might have even opened up the doors to overseas racing at the end of the year.
“After the Derby, the owners became keen on the international races in Hong Kong (Longines Hong Kong International Races) in December,” said Clements who had such travel plans for the likes of Kiwi Karma and Countofmontecristo in the past, but they never came to fruition.
“Nothing has been confirmed yet. The Singapore Gold Cup would appear to be a logical option that we can certainly consider as well, but on his ratings, he would be close to the top weight.
“The Gold Cup is always a hard race for any horse running against younger horses who carry only 50kgs.
“We are just exploring our options and we’ll have a better idea in the coming weeks.”
Clements would for now be content to just savour that latest accolade at the highest level, even if playing back the video would not really give any more clues for a blow-by-blow account of that sensational win shrouded in mist.
“It didn’t look good at one stage, he was a long way back,” said Clements.
“In the backstretch, I was wondering why Vlad was so far back, but credit to Vlad as he knows this horse so well. It was a masterful ride timing-wise, under the conditions.
“It’s very tough to ride under such conditions, but he timed it to perfection. He actually gave him a similar ride to the Derby.
“This horse has got such a big heart. I had no doubt about him bouncing back from the Raffles Cup and he really powered home.
“I was not too worried by the rain as he won on a yielding track in the Derby. I know he handles the wet.
“But going into a Group 1 race, if it’s too heavy and there is a downpour, you do have some concerns, but he obviously likes it.”
Top Knight has now taken his sterling record to nine wins and seven placings from 19 starts for prizemoney that has now reached the $1.7 million mark for the Falcon Racing No 7 Stable.