As trainer Alwin Tan gazed at War Affair galloping past in a barrier trial on Tuesday, a flood of memories came rushing back, more so with this Sunday’s running of the Emirates Singapore Derby.
The Ong family’s handsome warrior is not quite the same dominant force he used to be. During a 1 ½-year blitz under Tan’s tutelage, the son of O’Reilly used to run circles around his rivals, capturing half of his 16 wins, all at Group level including five at Group 1 level.
But the one run which to this day still rankles with Tan was that day in July 2015 when War Affair was denied a place in history after losing the third Leg of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, the Emirates Singapore Derby (2000m), by a neck to Quechua.
Infantry (No 5) will reunite with Manoel Nunes in the Emirates Singapore Derby, picture Singapore Turf Club
Six months earlier, War Affair had also faltered at the last hurdle in the Singapore Triple Crown series, the Longines Singapore Gold Cup, but the pain did not cut as deep – he just did not stay the 2200m.
Tan had been brimming with so much confidence leading up to the Derby. War Affair beat his rivals into submission in both the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup (1400m) and the Group 1 Patron’s Bowl (1600m). A race is never won on paper, but many thought the Singaporean handler could start rehearsing his victory speech.
But racing is a funny old game. War Affair lost and Tan also lost War Affair soon afterwards. The champion had run his last race for Tan and was moved to Bruce Marsh.
“He’s the best horse I even trained. I still treasure the time he was under my care,” said Tan who went on to win the Singapore trainer’s premiership the following year.
“Losing the Derby was hard to take. Quechua beat him by a neck and I remember that moment like it was yesterday.
“But it’s the past now, and this Sunday, I get another chance of winning my first Derby. None of the three horses – Infantry, Nova Strike and Absolute Miracle – are in the same class as War Affair, but they are not bad horses at all, especially Infantry.”
Tan said his trio have all come though their preparations more or less according to plan, and all that’s left to do now is see whether the individual programme he has mapped out for them will pay off on Sunday. All three will be at their first test over the 2000m trip of the $1.15 million Group 1 race.
“They have all worked pretty well. The only concern is the distance, it’s their first time over 2000m, it’s a very new challenge to them,” said Tan.
“I’m more confident with Infantry as he’s the top-rated horse in my stable and I always thought he would be more suited by longer staying races. His good barrier (six) is also a plus.
“I’ve been training him for more endurance and of the three, he’s the one who is more used to this new type of training. He can be subject to heat strokes, though, so we have to be mindful of that.
“For two weeks, I just did endurance work with him, no fast gallops, and just maintain his condition. I will have to discuss with his jockey Manoel Nunes (back on him after missing out in the Patron’s Bowl due to injury) on the best way to ride him.
“Absolute Miracle did well in the Patron’s Bowl (fifth to Alibi) and I was very pleasantly surprised with that run. It’s the first time he will run in such a big group of horses, so we’ll have to see how he handles that.
“I think he wants more ground, too, and the 2000m should be much better for him. He’s drawn wide (13), though, and his jockey Alan Munro will probably have to find a spot without cover a little further back than usual.
“As for Nova Strike, he always tries hard, but he’s a small horse and the weights are not to his advantage. He’s also drawn wide (12), and I’ll have to work out a strategy with his jockey Derreck David.”