By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Mohd Zaki’s biggest career win aboard Nepean in the $250,000 Group 2 EW Barker Trophy (1400m) on Sunday is the perfect example of what can happen to those who never give up hoping.
For a start, the Malaysian rider was supposed to have had an early shower after the last of his book of six rides, Jeram Gold, finished among the also-rans in Race 8, for a pretty similar result to his previous rides.
Zaki only got the call-up on outsider Nepean after jockey Matthew Kellady was stood down for dehydration.
But looking at an even bigger picture of his overall career, just four months ago, the Kelantan-born jockey was seriously contemplating the possibility of hanging up his boots.
He was among four Malaysian jockeys stranded in Johor Bahru following the closure of Malaysian borders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemonium. It was only in August, with the easing of restrictions and after a lengthy battle to get his work permit approved that he was able to return to the saddle in Singapore.
But even then, the 40-year-old, who has often been typecast as a shrewder jockey with leading tactics, battled to get rides, let alone quality rides.
While it could be a bit of a case of out of sight, out of mind, the plain truth is Zaki, like most of the local jockeys at Kranji, just didn’t quite belong to that elite band who command the pick of the rides week in week out.
His win counter had stalled at three winners (two on Helushka and one on Excellent Moon), all recorded before the COVID-19 break, but Nepean has landed on his lap at a most auspicious time to end his long wait, with a Group 2 success to boot.
Unless you are a trivia buff or a loyal follower of the rider, Zaki is not at his first ‘black type’ hurrah. Eight years ago, he notched his first in the Group 3 Committee’s Prize (1600m) with Keep Away for his former boss Hideyuki Takaoka – also earned from start to finish, it goes without saying.
To say that second feature win in those exceptionally challenging times was even more significant was an understatement.
“I’m just so very lucky. It’s a lucky pick-up ride and now I have my second Group win,” said a Zaki overwhelmed with emotion.
“When Shane Baertschiger came down the jockeys’ room to ask me if I could ride his horse (Nepean), I asked him ‘are you sure, boss!’. I really have to thank Shane for the ride as I rarely ride for him (only one on Absolute Maverick back in 2015), but I remember I did ride one winner for his father (Don) and I think it was also a pick-up ride (Blueberry Power in 2011).
“I also say thanks to Matthew Kellady. I pity him as he never got to ride the horse, he would have been the winning jockey, but at the same time, it became my good luck.
“This year has been so tough. I thought I’d give up riding when I was stuck in JB, I felt helpless I couldn’t do my job.
“Here, I want to thank trainer Tan Kah Soon who helped me to come back, my old boss Mr Takaoka, the Singapore Turf Club, in particular one staff, Maisarah for helping me with the paperwork, and of course, the Ministry Of Manpower for approving my work permit.
“But even when I got back, it’s been very hard to get rides, don’t even mention good rides. That’s the situation we’re all in now, trainers have fewer horses and it’s tough for everyone, but I have to keep working hard.”
With Nepean friendless at $276, it was probably that old familiar tune of “just getting a ride is better than nothing” for Zaki, but Baertschiger had homed in on the frontrunning jockey even if he hardly ever uses his services – and he had a silent hope that impromptu combination could hatch a surprise.
“I went through the list and I thought Zaki would be just nice as he’s good with frontrunners,” said the Australian trainer.
“I went down to ask him if he could make the weight (50kgs), and he was good to go. He ended riding him one kilo over.
“I told him Fame Star would come up, but not to let him cross. He did exactly as he was told, and with the lightweight, they just kept going.
“This horse had surgery to both fetlocks (chips removed) one year ago, and after his last run, he pulled up very lame.
“We had him re-X-rayed and we found out he had arthritis to his off fore fetlock. He had two weeks off, just walking and we then nursed him all the way to get into the EW Barker Trophy.
“I didn’t target him for that race, it’s just that after his time off, that was the only race left.
“When the rain came, I was a bit more confident as he had three starts on a rain-affected track for two wins, but I was still worried about his soundness.
“He’s actually not a bad horse. He once ran second to Top Knight in a Class 2 race beaten only two lengths while giving him four kilos.
“When he straightened up today, I could see Zaki still had plenty of horse under him. I knew he’d be hard to beat then.”
While it was not a win he could have predicted with great confidence, Baertschiger was delighted he had secured a fourth Group win for the MA Racing Stable, but the highest thus far with the first three all Group 3s.
However, it was highly unlikely Nepean would be the one to extend that record for the green and chequered flag silks in the future.
“I won two Group 3s (Garden City Trophy in 2014 and 2017) with Faaltless for the same owners, and another one when Best Tothelign dead-heated with Order Of The Sun in the Colonial Chief Stakes (2015),” said Baertschiger.
“With his lameness problems, I had actually booked Nepean to go to Malaysia. At his last start, he came back lame but today, he seems to be okay so far, we’ll have to wait.
“If he’s lame again, I’ll retire him, or else I may keep him, but in any case, he’s run his last race for this season. He’s going for a break.”
A seven-year-old by Roman Emperor, Nepean has more than earned his oats with five wins and five placings in 19 starts for prizemoney having reached around the $490,000 mark for the MA Racing Stable.
Undoubtedly, his most famous achievement occurred on Sunday, when he upstaged against all odds, better-fancied horses like Muraahib, Grand Koonta, Jupiter Gold, Fame Star or Zac Kasa.
It was recent Lion City Cup placegetter Nowyousee (Azhar Ismail), who also did not draw too many admirers on Sunday, who came the closest from ending Nepean’s dream run in the lead when he came off his heels to launch a stinging attack, but had to in the end settle for second place one length astern.
From the ruck, most were paddling in the yielding track, with the exception of Rocket Star (Simon Kok Wei Hoong) and to a lesser extent the Michael Clements duo of Quarter Back (Ryan Munger) and Siam Blue Vanda (Shafrizal Saleh), but truth be told, they were too far back to really put an indent into Nepean’s winning margin.
Rocket Star took third place another three parts of a length away with another gap of more than two lengths on Quarter Back and Siam Blue Vanda in fourth and fifth place respectively.
Leading picks like Muraahib (A’Isisuhairi Kasim) and Grand Koonta (Marc Lerner) never fired a shot. Muraahib had every chance in a fairly handy spot but went backwards when the chips were down while Grand Koonta was just disappointing, making no headway after settling in his usual rearward berth.
“The instructions were to jump and lead, and not let anyone pass him, especially Fame Star,” said Zaki.
“When I saw (Ruan) Maia come next to me in the backstraight, I picked him up again and we were able to hold on to the lead.
“He was handling the track very well. He was travelling easy for me, and in the straight, he kicked up again.
“At the 200m, I was screaming, I knew I couldn’t lose. I saw Azhar’s horse (Nowyousee) coming, but he couldn’t quicken well enough to catch me.
“I’m so lucky to have won this Cup race. I’d also like to say thank you to my mother, my biggest supporter, my wife, my three sisters and two brothers, they’ve been supporting me all along.”
One person who was extremely pleased for Zaki, albeit he had just inflicted him a heart-breaking defeat, was Nowyousee’s trainer Tan Kah Soon.
“I’m so happy for Zaki. I couldn’t have wished for a more deserving person to win a Group race,” said the Penang-born trainer.
“Everything up the straight was so going the way Clarton Super won the Fortune Bowl (2018), but Nowyousee just struggled on the ground when Azhar asked him to switch leads.
“It took him a while to find his feet again, but it was a brave run either way.”