Hong Kong’s staying division is in need of a champion and Tony Cruz believes Exultant is the horse to place an authoritative stamp on what is currently a realm of inconsistency.
The five-year-old is one of three Cruz-trained gallopers among a fascinating 11-strong entry for Sunday’s G1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup (2000m), alongside the infamously mercurial Pakistan Star and the unpredictable Time Warp.
The handler confirmed this morning (12 February) that Exultant will stay Hong Kong-side through the remainder of the campaign, to contest the G1 FWD QEII Cup (2000m) and G1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup (2400m), and will not head to Dubai for the G1 Dubai Sheema Classic at the end of March.
“We’re not going to Dubai this year,” he said. “I think we’d better stay here because he’ll likely lose a lot of weight going there and coming back, and as he’s not a good doer we don’t want to risk it. Next year, when he’s stronger and more mature, then we’ll look at going over there for the Sheema Classic.
“We’ll target the races we have here in Hong Kong and he’s in excellent shape for the Hong Kong Gold Cup, he’s the form horse.”
That he is. Exultant saw off international raiders to become only the third Hong Kong-trained winner of the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase (2400m) in December and last month swept by talented rivals for a cosy score under a big weight in the G3 Centenary Vase Handicap (1800m).
Exultant and Zac Purton, picture Liesl King
“He’s just become a better racehorse and that’s because he relaxes in his races much better. He’s older and stronger now: he’s a light-framed horse so he’s only just finding his strength this season,” Cruz said.
“He had no speed last season but the key was that he didn’t know how to relax properly in a race. And we have a top jockey on him now, too: Zac Purton doesn’t make many mistakes and he knows how to ride him properly.”
Purton, for his part, puts the Teofilo gelding’s development squarely at Cruz’s door.
“Tony’s done a brilliant job. He’s a completely different horse to when he first came and I’ve been surprised with the transformation in him. I suppose that’s been the key to getting the best out of him,” the champion jockey said.
The Australian is not taking anything for granted on Sunday though when his rivals will also include G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup (2000m) hero Glorious Forever, as well as top-class competitors Eagle Way, Southern Legend, Singapore Sling and Northern Superstar.
“It’s not going to be as easy this time but he has improved this season, he’s racing with a lot of confidence and he’s got a good set of lungs,” he said.
“For him, it just comes down to how the races are run. He doesn’t have much tactical speed so he’s always going to be giving them a bit of a start and he’s relying on the pace of the race - as he got last time. But you’d be pretty naïve to think they’d be going that fast two times in a row.”
Cruz, meanwhile, believes the bay has the attributes to lift divisional honours at the season’s end.
“He’s a good ride every day, he’s very quiet,” he said. “He doesn’t even play around or jump or buck, he’s very correct in his behaviour. He’s a gentleman and a really good athlete, too, and I think he goes on all sorts of going. He has the temperament, the stamina and a good fighting heart.
“He’ll be champion stayer. I believe he has what it takes to do that,” Cruz added.
Star can still shine
The handler’s Pakistan Star carried off the Champion Stayer title last year after impressive G1 wins in the QEII Cup and Champions & Chater Cup. The six-year-old has failed to fire so far this season but Cruz believes his time will come again.
“The sparkle is still there,” he said, confirming that a possible Dubai challenge is “off the radar now.”
Cruz and owner Kerm Din have opted to change the jockey again with Tommy Berry returning as the gelding’s partner in place of Silvestre de Sousa - the horse’s five career wins have been achieved under four different riders.
Berry’s only previous outing on the Shamardal gelding resulted in Champions & Chater Cup success last May.
“We just need a change of luck, that’s all,” Cruz explained. “One of the reasons is that Tommy has won on him before, but also every time we change jockey he seems to win!
“I’m very happy with the horse,” he continued. “This time he’s in better shape and we’ve got some good leaders in the race so the pace should be on, which would suit him perfectly.
“He ran well in the Stewards’ Cup last time but the mile is too short, I think he needs 1800 and 2000 metres.”
As for Time Warp, he became the first horse in history to dip below two minutes over 2000m at Sha Tin when he won this race last year but has failed to recapture that level of form since.
“He needs everything his way. It’s the same story, he’ll lead the race and if he runs his best race he wins,” Cruz said.
Pakistan Star, picture Liesl King