On April 13, 2013, a fresh-faced apprentice Shafrizal Saleh rode his first career winner at his very first meeting in Ipoh, Triple Coin for Penang trainer Bonny Ng.
Four years later, almost to the day, on April 16, 2017, the Penang rider rode his first winner in Singapore, Ahmar for trainer Mark Walker.
The feeling of elation was unmistakably the same for either milestone, but you could probably add a huge sense of relief as well on Sunday.
Penang-born rider Shafrizal Saleh scores his first win in Singapore aboard Ahmar on Sunday, picture Singapore Turf Club
Shafrizal has been plying his trade at Kranji since September 2016 and though pundits had been quick to spot his talent just by looking at his balance and his strength in the saddle, he had not broken the ice in 88 rides.
A handful of placings have come his way, but somehow, he just could not rekindle that winning vein that had come to a screeching halt at win No 43 last year.
The closest he came was arguably that second place aboard Amazing Man, bashing the living daylights out of the then maiden, but triple Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Glen Boss worried him out of it aboard Miss Waimataitai earlier this year.
But that very same Amazing Man also proved to be his nemesis when he was handed a four-meeting ban for a charge of careless riding in the home straight.
Frustration would be an understatement to describe the 29-year-old’s bumpy journey at Kranji thus far.
A need to brush up on his steering was also imperative if he wanted to make his mark at his new stomping ground. Just last week, he was slapped with a two-week suspension for not riding Knight Chen Bay to the line in a race on February 24, piling more misery on a two-day ban he had already incurred for careless riding on the same horse in the same race.
But constant guidance and support from his master Michael Clements as well as regular backing from other trainers spurred him on – with his patience finally rewarded in Sunday’s opening event, the $38,000 Zac Spirit 2016 Stakes, a Kranji Stakes D race over 1400m.
Shafrizal listened to Walker’s assistant-trainer Robbie Hewitson’s instructions to the letter – bounce out the Sir Percy five-year-old from his awkward alley and park him close to the speed before asking for the supreme effort in the home straight.
Ahmar ($25), a maiden who had been knocking on the door with two seconds and one third at his last three runs, rallied under Shafrizal’s urgings to go and post a half-length win from Nova Spirit (Derreck David) with Storm Trooper (Syed Zainal), another Walker, third another neck away.
The winning time was 1min 23.65secs for the 1400m on the Long Course.
“I’m so happy to finally get my first winner in Singapore. I’ve waited for too long,” said Shafrizal who was at his only ride of the day.
“I’ve never ridden this horse in a race before but I looked at his record and I thought he had a good chance. I rode him in trackwork and he gave me a good feeling.
“The instruction was to put him in a good position and not be too far behind. He quickened very well at the top of the straight, and at the 100m mark, I knew I had my first Singapore winner!
“I would like to thank Mr Walker and the owner for that ride, but also all the trainers and owners who have been supporting me. It’s been very frustrating, especially with the suspensions, but I just kept looking forward.”
Shafrizal, who begins his double suspension from Monday and won’t be back in a race until May 12, said the reason for moving down South of the Causeway was pretty much the same as many fellow Malaysians’ – the lure of better opportunities, and when Clements’ offer landed on his lap, he did not look back.
“I’ve always wanted to ride in Singapore but never really did anything about it until Mr Clements said he was looking for an apprentice jockey and asked me if I was interested. I said yes straightaway,” said Shafrizal.
“It’s a big opportunity that any Malaysian apprentice jockey would love to have. It’s been tough, tougher than I thought, but I never gave up.
“I gave myself a year to see how things would work out. I have to admit I was feeling a bit down, but I never gave up and I’m glad I didn’t.
“Hopefully, that first win will bring up more from now on.”
Shafrizal has a very distinctive old school Australian riding style, which he said he just developed on his own while learning a few tricks of the trade from more senior jockeys like Benny Woodworth, Michael Rodd and former top jockey Saimee Jumaat, who ironically tend to eschew the old Aussie windmill style.
“I get help from a few jockeys like Benny, Michael Rodd and even Saimee. I don’t copy one individual style, but apply what I learn from them and form my own style,” said Shafrizal.
“But I know I still have a long way to go.”
Hewitson said it was not the yard who picked the Malaysian lad for the ride on Ahmar, but was certainly glad he was the one sitting in the saddle on Sunday.
“The owner (Al-Arabiya Stable) put the kid on, it’s worked out good,” said the Kiwi horseman.
“That horse has not had much luck in his races, especially at his last start. He was caught three off the track.
“He was due for a win and the kid rode him well.”