Versatile galloper Infantry powered away to an emotional Emirates Singapore Derby win for both trainer Alwin Tan and jockey Manoel Nunes on Sunday.
The prestigious $1.15 million Group 1 race over 2000m has been an elusive prize for the reigning Singapore champion trainer in his eight years at Kranji, coming agonisingly close once when War Affair lost to Quechua in a head bobber in the 2015 edition – incidentally stumbling at the last hurdle in his bid to land a historic clean sweep of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge.
Nunes, Singapore’s three-time champion jockey, does have one Singapore Derby win to his name, courtesy of the outstanding Spalato the year before (2014), but the Brazilian hoop joined Tan in describing Infantry’s Derby success as an even more memorable career highlight.
Infantry (Manoel Nunes) draws clear to post a brilliant win in the Emirates Singapore Derby, picture Singapore Turf Club
“When I won on Spalato, he was the clear-cut favourite. Don’t get me wrong, it was special as it was my first Derby, but this second Derby is even more meaningful because I just came back from injury,” said Nunes.
“Spalato was the horse to beat and he won easily, but there were many question marks over Infantry going into the race, whether he can run the trip, the others are better than him and all that.
“But I’ve been very confident all along as I could feel he was in the best form of his life. I galloped him on Saturday and Tuesday, and I told Joe (D’Zulkifliy), Alwin’s assistant-trainer that he would win the Derby.
“I know this horse really well, and he gave me such great confidence. Today, he just showed me where to go, he is so professional.
“In the running, I even told Danny (Beasley on Lim’s Cruiser) what a lovely position I was in. He’s a horse that doesn’t like to be chased or held back, and today, everything was perfect.
“At the 700m, I had a lot of horse under me, and when the gaps opened, he just pulled away to a big break. He got a bit tired in the end but he had enough left in the tank to last it out.
“This is a miracle and thank God, it’s worked out well. It’s unbelievable, three weeks after my injury, I’ve come back and won the Derby, I’m very pleased.
“A big thank you to the owners and Alwin for keeping me on this horse, and the doctor who operated on me and made sure I come back in time.”
Nunes hurt his ankle after falling from Happy Baby in a race on June 11. The injury necessitated surgery followed by a three-week rest. Though he was not 100%, Nunes made his riding comeback on Friday night, in which he came back empty-handed, but it did not really matter as a much bigger prize was waiting two days later.
By coincidence, the last winner Nunes rode two days (June 9) before his fall, Military Might, also sports the same colours, those of Infantry’s Thai owners, the Kajorn Petch Racing Stable.
As tears welled up his eyes at the winner’s enclosure, barely able to maintain his composure, Tan probably wished he could just go and pop the champagne. The Singapore Derby was finally his and he could now finally exorcise the ghosts of that War Affair defeat.
“This is the biggest race I’ve ever won. I can’t find words to describe how I’m feeling now,” said Tan.
“All I can say is that I’m very happy and also for the Thai owners who came here to support the horse.
“This horse has such a big heart, he always does his best and throughout his prep I was satisfied with his work. Like I’ve said before, I gave him a lot of endurance work, more than the two other horses (Nova Strike who ran third and Absolute Miracle who ran eighth), and it’s obviously paid off.
“When Infantry drew six, I was even more confident as we were hoping for anything from five to eight, and here I have to thank my wife for her lucky hand at the draw!
“From barrier six, I didn’t have to tell Nunes what to do as he knows the horse so well. When they landed in fifth or sixth on the rails, I knew they would have a good chance.
“And what about Nova Strike! What a fantastic race, he ran his heart out from his wide gate and just missed second place to Laurie’s (Laxon) horse (Lim’s Samurai) by a neck.”
Winning team basking in the limelight: (from left) Trainer Alwin Tan and wife Dr Kam Boon Horng to his right, jockey Manoel Nunes, owners Gen Noppadon and Preecha Chaisirinon, picture Singapore Turf Club
Ridden by Derreck David, Nova Strike indeed had to overcome barrier No 12 to settle in a one-out one-back position outside Alibi (Glen Boss), the two-Leg winner who was trying to succeed where War Affair failed.
The Michael Clements-trained entire by Darci Brahma was still in the zone until the extra two furlongs of the Derby had to be tackled (second Leg, the Group 1 Patron’s Bowl is run over 1600m). That was when his stamina doubts were unfortunately laid bare while Nova Strike stayed a touch better as he plugged on to fight for the minors.
Lim’s Samurai (William Pike) was, however, not far behind and also improving rapidly through the pack. In the end, the Japanese-bred worried Nova Strike out of the coveted runner-up position right on the line.
But all honours to Infantry who reaped the full benefits of a charmed run along the rails in fifth spot before pouncing to the front upon straightening. Timing his run to perfection, Nunes waited for the last 300m to let rip, with the break they pinched proving unassailable in the end.
Sent out as the joint second favourite ($28) with Alibi and Elite Excalibur (Michael Rodd), the son of Tavistock held on valiantly to post a one-length victory from Lim’s Samurai with Nova Strike third another neck away, taking home around $600,000 in prizemoney to swell his bank account to around $1.3 million. First known as a sprinter, Infantry has gradually been groomed into a middle-distance performer via an unsuccessful trip to Korea last September, and was at his third Group success following wins in the Group 2 Merlion Trophy (1200m) and Group 3 JBBA Moonbeam Vase (1800m) earlier this year.
Alibi looked like he would be gobbled up at the 400m, but sheer courage saw him hang on for fourth place another half-a-length away for a performance which still pleased his rider no end.
“He didn’t stay, but he was so gutsy in defeat,” said Boss, who always thought Alibi was a touch suspect over the trip, especially after the Patron’s Bowl win.
“He got into a perfect trailing position after the first turn, but at the 600m, I knew he wouldn’t win. He should have run 10th but it’s his big heart that saw him finish fourth.”
David was also full of admiration for Nova Strike’s ($124) mighty effort, rueing his bad luck – he drew the number himself - at the post position draw ceremony on Wednesday.
“If he had drawn better, he could have run second. It was still a very brave run from him,” said the South African jockey who all along had plenty of faith in the Nova Racing Stable-owned galloper.
“After I rode him to fifth (to Quechua) in the QEII Cup (Queen Elizabeth II Cup), I knew he could stay. I had to use him up from the wide gate to get into that spot, but even though he’s such a small horse, he never stopped fighting all the way to the line.”
One jockey who was also beaming even though he did not annex the Holy Grail was visiting Perth hoop Pike, especially considering Lim’s Samurai had petered out to eighth place in the Patron’s Bowl, making amends with a much better run in the Derby.
“He was too close to the speed last time, but he still ran well. I was not disappointed at all with that run,” said the eight-time Perth champion jockey who went on to win Sunday’s penultimate race, the $80,000 Hello Melbourne Stakes, a Class 3 race over 1400m with Mr Crowe ($36), ringing up a fantastic riding double after he saluted for his first Singapore win aboard Chairman earlier (see earlier report).
“He settled further back this time, somewhere in midfield, and he stayed on very well. I’m very happy with my second visit to Singapore – two wins and a second place in the Derby, can’t complain.”
Laxon could not either, as he sets about plotting another ambitious journey for the Lim’s Stable’s galloper ($67), who was actually their second stringer after $17 favourite Lim’s Cruiser – who ran sixth for Danny Beasley.
“That was a very good run. He will be a good Gold Cup horse,” said the champion trainer.
The Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup (2200m) is the third Leg of the Singapore Triple Crown series and will be run on November 12.