By Michael Lee, Singapore Turf Club
Three days away from his farewell meeting in Singapore, Ryan Munger exudes the serenity of a man who has ticked all the boxes at his first overseas stint – except for one: A feature race win.
After a hushed start to his one-year licence, the relatively unknown South African lightweight jockey has gathered steam in the hot cauldron that is Kranji, ironically in the second half of a season like no other, at a time when Singapore racing was facing one of its darkest moments after being crippled by three long months of lockdown and waking up to a bizarre new era of sparser racing before zero crowds.
Unfortunately, the upturn in fortunes (he has steadily climbed from the third tier to seventh spot) has done little to lessen Munger’s deepening worries about the uncertainties ahead, prompting the 25-year-old to regretfully opt out of a licence renewal for 2021 and return home to continue his riding career.
With 18 Kranji winners under his belt, the former Zimbabwe champion apprentice jockey would still wear a contented smile when he boards the homebound plane to Johannesburg with his young wife Kelsey on Sunday even if he does not fulfill that one last wish with his “last chance saloon” on Saturday, the ride on Sincerely in the $150,000 Group 3 Colonial Chief Stakes (1600m), but the grin might just turn broader if he did!
Munger would probably not have been as bent on filling that glaring gap on his Kranji resume had he not come so agonisingly close in all three Group 1 Legs of the Singapore Triple Crown series with three seconds!
A Group 3 race may not have the same aura as a Raffles Cup (Sun Marshal), Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Minister) or Singapore Gold Cup (Minister), but Munger, who landed three Group 3 races as his majors in his own backyard, would still be pinching himself if Sincerely crosses the line first in Singapore’s traditional last feature race for that fairytale ending on Saturday.
“After all the seconds, it’s great to have one more chance of leaving with some silverware in the suitcase. That would be the cherry on the top if I win that race on Saturday,” said Munger.
“I also have a very nice card (nine rides from 10 races). The more, the merrier, to end on a winning note would also be great.
“I’m very happy with Sincerely. I galloped him this morning, and he’s feeling good and has come on from his last run.”
That day, the Michael Clements-trained French-bred four-year-old looked all poised to add another feather to his debut Kranji win when he let down nicely for his first-time partner in a Kranji Stakes B race over the turf mile, only to be denied by a faster swooper in Sky Rocket inside the concluding stages.
“He’s definitely good for this type of race. It’s a winnable race where none of the star Group 1 horses are in,” said Munger.
“They are your every day Class 2 horses. All of them stand a chance, none of them is a real danger, but if I had to pick one, it would have to be Sky Rocket.
“But I can’t fault my horse. I have got to know him better after that first ride, he has drawn well (four) and the distance is definitely up his alley.
“So, he has a lot of positives in his favour. My only concern is his first time on the all-weather here, but he’s working good on the Polytrack, and I think he can give a good account of himself.”
Munger would no doubt get an extra shot of confidence if past records were dug up. Then known as Quindio at his six starts in France when competing on the provincial circuit for trainer Xavier Thomas-Demeaulte, Sincerely boasts one win (1500m) at Pau on its fibresand track in January 2019.
Granted the fibresand (Kranji’s original synthetic track before being replaced by Polytrack in 2008) and Polytrack are two different patents, but it’s still one more plus fact to have in his corner.
To Clements, though, it’s a combination of other moving parts that has led to the Falcon Racing Stable-owned galloper taking a spot in the Colonial Chief Stakes.
“From his first-up win in a sprint race, he has continued along that path. It’s only at his last start that he has run the speed out of himself,” said Clements.
“He has shown he was looking for extra distance, and the Colonial Chief Stakes has come at the right time for him.
“Being now in Class 2, he fits into such a race. It’s his first time over the Polytrack, but the way he trials and does his track gallops on it, it should not be an issue.
“As it’s a conditions race, he comes in well under the weights and Ryan, who rode him at his last start, can make that weight (52kgs).
“It’s not a particularly strong race, more like a standard Class 2 type of race, but we’ve had a good run in feature races this year, and this is still a race that I would love to win for the first time.”
Such is the usual placid demeanour of the unassuming Zimbabwean-born handler even if he has consistently outperformed his peers this year, and the imminence of an ultimate reward is nigh.
Besides having had a “good run” with seven Group trophies, including three at Group 1 level, all captured for the first time, namely the Singapore Derby and Queen Elizabeth II Cup with Top Knight and the Singapore Gold Cup with Big Hearted, Singapore’s veteran expat trainer (moved from Zimbabwe in 2008) is two meetings or 20 races away from collecting his first Singapore champion trainer title.
On 56 winners, he is 11 clear of reigning champion Mark Walker, who was thrown a late lifeline with Silent Partner in the last race on Saturday, but realistically and “sincerely” speaking, unless the New Zealander cuts a swathe with winners by the spades in the next two remaining meetings while Clements goes winless – a most unlikely scenario – the last meeting on December 27 will unveil a new champion.