Speedy Dragon sweeps away with New Year Cup

Local trainer David Kok could not have hoped for a better memory eraser of a bad year than a Group winner at the dawn of a new season on Monday, Speedy Dragon in the $200,000 Group 3 New Year Cup (1200m).

It is well-documented the Singaporean handler endured one of his worst seasons in 2017 with a paltry haul of 11 winners.

In stark contrast, Kok bagged almost the double of that score the year before, not to mention two Group 1 races, the Emirates Singapore Derby and the Patron’s Bowl with Well Done.

Speedy Dragon (A'Isisuhairi Kasim) clears out for a facile victory in the New Year Cup, picture Singapore Turf Club

Beleaguered by a slew of injuries that sidelined most of his horses in his small yard, Kok vowed to turn the tables this year, and Speedy Dragon, one of his stalwart sprinters, was just the tonic he needed to give him a nice kickalong.

The sparingly-raced US-bred chestnut by Safe In The Usa is himself the perfect epitome of Kok’s rollercoaster year. Hounded by knee chip issues all his career, the six-year-old, who has not visited the winner’s enclosure since June 2016, underwent his third such surgery after his last run in the Group 3 Rocket Man Sprint (1200m) last March.

But Kok again nursed him back to racing condition. Even if his two unplaced starts at the end of last year did not suggest a return to his heyday was imminent, Kok was quietly confident the six-time winner was not far off his best.

Completely overlooked in the market at $180, no doubt with most thinking his chances were compounded further by his wide alley in nine, Speedy Dragon defied the odds to turn in a jaw-dropping performance.

Eased back into a rearward spot three wide by first-time partner A’Isisuhairi Kasim, the Jason Goh-owned (same owner as Well Done) galloper initially settled reasonably well as the noted speedsters like Nova Swiss (Benny Woodworth), favourite Skywalk (Daniel Moor) and Sebas (Azhar Ismail) made a beeline for the usual early rush.

Winning team enjoying the limelight: (from left) jockey A'Isisuhairi Kasim, trainer David Kok and assistant-trainer Adrien Chin, who acted as stable representative, picture Singapore Turf Club

But rather unexpectedly, the pace dropped right off at the 800m when Nova Swiss cleared Sebas rather comfortably to settle into the lead, packing up the mid-section instantly, resulting in Speedy Dragon starting to overrace our deep as Forever Young (Ryan Curatolo) slid up on his nearside.

Without panicking, A’Isisuhairi made the winning move when he allowed his mount to roll forward albeit still three wide, cornering to draw on level terms with Nova Swiss.

All of a sudden, Speedy Dragon pinched a two-length break even though A’Isisuhairi had not really gone full throttle yet. Caught hopelessly napping, the backmarkers looked in disarray as they tried to peg the unlikely runaway leader, but it was clearly mission impossible.

Obviously back on song, Speedy Dragon glided on his pet surface to coast to the line, unchallenged. Fortune Winner (Saifudin Ismail) ran on for second place when it was all over, winding up 2 ¼ lengths astern of Speedy Dragon.

Recent Group 3 Colonial Chief Stakes (1700m) winner Nova Strike ran his usual honest race but the miler evidently ran out of ground over the six furlongs to finish third another three parts of a length away. The winning time was 1min 11.2secs for the 1200m on the Polytrack.

An elated Kok said he had harboured a silent hope Speedy Dragon could stage an upset despite all the niggles he had to overcome.

“He is a true Polytrack horse and he has been working very well,” he said.

“I actually expected him to run well. I was not worried he was all worked up in the parade ring as he does that all the time.

“This horse has had three knee chip surgeries and to see him win today is a big thrill. For that, I have to thank my boys at the stable and his patient owner, Jason Goh, who unfortunately could not be here today for the race.

“Harry also rode him very well. He did the right thing when he moved forward as they slowed up the pace.

“It’s been a tough year, and let’s hope this Group win is a good sign of better things to come, especially as it’s on New Year’s Day.

“I don’t want to get too carried away, though, as last year, I actually won two races on New Year’s Day and then we know what happened.

“We will just take one day at a time. I don’t have any specific plans for Speedy Dragon, just look for another Polytrack race I guess.”

A’Isisuhairi has certainly been stamping himself as the go-to man for feature races in recent years, especially when lightweight jockeys are needed. Two years ago, the former two-time Singapore champion apprentice jockey won the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup as a replacement rider (Manoel Nunes was stood down) on Titanium, and last year he fully repaid trainer Cliff Brown’s trust when he guided Gilt Complex to land the Group 1 Raffles Cup.

The New Year Cup, which was being dropped from 1900m to 1200m for the first time, may not rank as highly as those two aforementioned wins, but A’Isisuhairi was still happy to bask in the limelight, especially with the auspiciousness of the New Year coinciding.

“I’ve never ridden this horse before. I didn’t have a ride after a horse trained by Michael Clements was balloted out,” said the Kelantan-born rider.

“David rang me and asked me if I could ride him. He said he had 51.5kgs and I said ‘good as gold’.

“Looking at the horse’s recent form, you would not think he could win such a race, but I always believed you must go in with confidence, and on the day, anything can happen.

“We thought there would be a lot of speed in the race, and from his wide barrier, I would settle behind the speed. He began okay, but then they slowed down in front.

“David had already warned me Speedy Dragon has his own quirks and issues and he likes to lay out, rear or dip in the gates. When the pace slowed down, he wanted to hang out.

“So, instead of fighting him, I just let him stride, and next thing I know, he was travelling three wide outside the leader.

“Then came the funny part. At the top of the straight, I went to the front and as I went about changing his legs, I was expecting the challengers to come at us.

“But to my surprise, I couldn’t see anyone. Where are they? From then on, he kept going strongly to the line and I knew we couldn’t lose.”

Speedy Dragon, who, stunningly, was at his fifth season, but only at his 18th start, has now recorded seven wins and five placings for stakes earnings that have hit around the $420,000 mark for the GTR Racing Stable.