Champion mare Better Life did not disappoint her legion of fans when recording a smashing victory in Sunday’s $1.15 million Group 1 Emirates Singapore Derby (2000m), but shortly after she was over the line, trainer Hideyuki Takaoka made the startling revelation that this latest feather to her cap might have well been her swansong.
The Japanese handler said that plans had already been afoot before the Derby to retire her to the breeding barn, win or lose, but also added nothing has been cast in stone, though Madam Mitsumi Kusumoto of Suzuka Racing Stable is at this point in time leaning towards a breeding career in Australia.
Better Life, an Australian-bred four-year-old mare by Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, was at her eighth win in only 14 starts, but already at her third Group 1 triumph after she took out the Longines Singapore Gold Cup (2200m) last November and her first, the Panasonic Kranji Mile a month earlier.
At this year’s prep, she landed the Group 2 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2000m) last April before not running up to her best form in the International Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup (2000m) last May.
Takaoka, well-known for being an astute trainer of stayers, backed her off after that defeat, slowly bringing her back towards this year’s main target, the Holy Grail for four-year-olds, the Singapore Derby. He even deliberately bypassed the first two Legs of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, the Stewards’ Cup (1400m) – trip not suitable - and the Patron’s Bowl (1800m) – too close to the Derby – to concentrate on the third and final Leg.
While some thought she could be a fitness query in tackling the 2000m race first-up, the way the talented chestnut made light of a slightly chequered run at the top of the straight to score going away certainly vindicated Takaoka’s decision.
Beginning from barrier No 2, Better Life (Alan Munro), who was sent out as the clear $8 favourite, hugged the rails in fifth, enjoying a relatively trouble-free passage behind the speed set by Goodpack (David Flores) until the backmarkers started to whip around from the 700m while she looked a little bit hemmed in on the inside.
Unfazed, Munro waited for the home straight to peel off heels, but was momentarily in two minds when the gap between stablemate Musketeer (Shafiq Rizuan) and Goodpack was not eventuating as expected and she was even seen swishing tails, which can be a worrying sign at times.
When Musketeer rolled in a touch, the gap narrowed again, but he luckily rolled back out again, finally setting Better Life free, who in a few big bounds, stamped her class by skipping away while outstaying the fast-finishing Wild Geese (Manoel Nunes) who was steadily pulling ground off her, but she finally held him safely at bay by 1 ¼ lengths.
Former French galloper Tropaios (Greg Cheyne) must also be credited with a super run as he made stacks of ground from the ruck to finish third another 2 ½ lengths away. The winning time was 2min 1.12 secs for the 2000m journey on the Short Course.
Takaoka, who is no stranger to Derby glory having claimed the event in 2009 with another quality mare, Jolie’s Shinju, who even made a cleansweep of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge having won the first two Legs as well, was understandably speechless at the winner’s circle.
“What can I say? She’s a very, very good mare and I’m very, very happy,” he said.
“I wasn’t too concerned about her going into the Derby without any prep runs since the SIA Cup. We’ve done everything there was to do with her, bearing in mind she is a filly, and to me, she had enough work and I was confident she would be fit for the Derby.
“I was only worried when she looked a bit boxed in on the rails at the top of the straight. We actually did discuss about that scenario before the race, as in, if she is on the rails and other runners come around her and she can’t get out.
“But Alan never panicked and was able to get her out at the right time. He’s such a good jockey and I knew from the 200m she couldn’t lose the race.”
Takaoka said it was a huge thrill to secure a second Derby win, and said both mares have given him indescribable moments of joy.
“The first time is always exciting, but winning a second Derby is also a great source of happiness. Both are champion mares, though they are so different in their styles,” he said.
“Jolie’s Shinju went at the same speed and had so much stamina. This one (Better Life) sits off the pace and has a finishing burst.”
But the twist in the tale came when Takaoka dropped the "retirement" bomb, amidst all the celebrations and the congratulatory handshakes.
Granted, there had been some mail about her targeting a feature race in Japan this year doing the rounds, but the sudden farewell when the lightly-raced mare was still at her prime, was certainly a stunning kicker.
“I spoke with the owners before the Derby and they have decided to send her to Australia to become a broodmare. I think they have even chosen the stallion, Sebring,” said Takaoka.
“They obviously don’t want to overrace her as it’s not good for a mare to be too tired with racing if she is to become a mother. But look, there is always a chance, no matter how small, they may change their minds, but as we speak today, she has run her last race in Singapore.
“I’m of course very sad I won’t train such a good mare anymore, but I have to respect the owners’ decision. I am 100% behind them.”
Munro said than in his pre-race analysis, his initial intention was to run one off the rails, presumably in a bid to avoid getting strung up in traffic when the chips are down.
“The plan was to run one deep and sit off the speed, but Vorster’s horse (Greenstone) pushed us back on the rails,” said the British jockey.
“There was a tense moment coming to the home turn when I committed to go to the inside, but El Milagro rolled back in and I had to ease back.
“When we straightened up, I then had to find a split between the two horses (Musketeer and Goodpack) and she was switching legs for a while, and pricked her ears, but once she saw daylight she just quickened away.
“I could hear Manoel shouting from behind – he shouts a lot that guy, but the mare fought back even though she was not 100% fit. She’s such a good mare.”
Munro, who rode an English Epsom Derby aboard Generous 22 years ago when he was only 24, was not one to draw comparisons, but could not have summed it up better in his appraisal of the two Derby triumphs across ages and continents.
“The English Derby was my first, but I’m much older now,” said Munro who is never given to excessive hyperbole. “The Singapore Derby means a lot to me, too.”
Barring an unlikely change of heart from the Suzuka Racing Stable, Better Life has concluded her glittering career on a record of eight wins (between 1200m and 2200m) and three placings for stakes earnings that have just tipped over the $2 million mark with the Derby win.