The rare combination of Mark Walker and Benny Woodworth teamed up on Sunday to both claim arguably their most important win in Singapore to-date - their first Singapore Gold Cup, thanks to Elite Invincible.
Long earmarked as Gold Cup material, especially after winning the first two Legs of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, the Group 2 Stewards’ Cup (1400m) and the Group 1 Giovanni Racing Charity Bowl (1600m), the Irish-bred four-year-old by Archarcharch overcame an interrupted prep (due to a fever) towards the $1.35 million Group 1 Dester Singapore Gold Cup (2000m) with a bold and unexpected on-pace run that saw him stave off a gallant Circuit Land (Ruan Maia) by a head and send trainer and jockey into raptures.
Twice crowned champion trainer in Singapore and five times in his native New Zealand, Walker had yet to lay hands on the Holy Grail since his relocation in 2010.
Elite Invincible (Benny Woodworth) makes a beeline for the winning post in the Dester Singapore Gold Cup, picture Singapore Turf Club
While he had most of the feature races back home ticked off on his glittering resume, Group 1 wins at Kranji had in contrast not been quite a staple, until Elite Invincible recently broke the duck in the Giovanni Racing Charity Bowl (1600m) in June.
For good measure, Elite Invincible has incidentally brought up Walker’s 500th Kranji winner in the country’s richest and most prestigious domestic race, a race which had eluded him since the very first good horse he took along to Singapore from Matamata, Tell A Tale, ran second to Risky Business in 2010.
Humble as ever, Walker said that well-deserved first Singapore Gold Cup accolade was not just his, but bore the mark of the entire team.
“There is no ‘I’ in team, this has been a team effort, and to make it at my 500th win here is the icing on the cake,” he said.
“It’s a big thrill for (assistant-trainer) Gus and Karen (Clutterbuck), and Eddie. I’ve tried to win the Gold Cup a few times with horses like Tell A Tale at my first year, and Sebrose, and to do it this year with Elite Invincible for the Elite Performance Stable is just so special.
“I always thought he was a Gold Cup horse but he didn’t have an ideal prep. He ran a good race in the Derby, had a spell, but then he spiked a temperature.
“He missed the first two Legs (of the Singapore Triple Crown series, the Group 1 Raffles Cup over 1600m and Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup over 1800m), and had two lead-up races over 1200m and 1400m instead.
“These things happen in racing, it put us on the backfoot, but we have to think out of the square. There were 30 days between the 1400m and the 2000m, we knew he had the residual fitness, and Gus and I put our heads together, and it worked.
“When it rained today, I thought he had no chance as he doesn’t like the sting out of the ground. I had even said we might as well leave the horse in his box if it rained, but we didn’t, and it was a genius of a ride by Benny that won us the race.
“From his wide gate (outermost in 16), I had told the Stewards we would ride him back today, and hope he can finish off.
“But he jumped so good – and that’s what makes a great jockey when they take their own initiative. Benny probably thought why drag him back, he might as well use his speed to get him up there and once he crossed to the rails, half the battle was won.
“The rest of the race was all about his class. People forget he nearly won all three Legs of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, and I guess having only 53kgs on his back also helped him today.”
Woodworth, who does not ride for Walker all that often, but does boast one win aboard Elite Invincible earlier in February in a Kranji Stakes B race over 1600m, was savouring that first taste of Gold with an even deeper sense of long overdue reward, even if the Malaysian jockey does have one Gold Cup under his belt, the Penang Gold Cup with Xtherest in 2002.
First of all, his road to Gold has been even longer than Walker’s. Woodworth has been part of the furniture on the Malayan Racing Association (MRA) circuit for more than 25 years, but it’s also been a rollercoaster ride as well.
The Ipoh-born rider was considered as a prodigy in his early days with four champion apprentice jockey titles and one senior title. The naturally-gifted jockey went on to ride around the world with the same success, including winning a Mauritius champion jockey title in 2007.
His star, however, dimmed in the 2010’s, with support – especially from big stables – somehow dwindling, but a decision to call Kranji home around three to four years ago – instead of shuttling back and forth across the Causeway - has turned his fortunes around, with trainer Desmond Koh instrumental to the renaissance of sorts.
Woodworth remarkably enjoyed his best Singapore season last year with three Group wins, headed by the Group 1 Singapore Guineas with Forever Young. It was no flash in the pan, as the revival has shown no letting-up this season with another prolific haul – ninth on 30 winners.
The Singapore Gold Cup was one race he had in vain tried to win for many years. Being a natural lightweight rider, it has not been through a lack of opportunities, but with age catching up, the 45-year-old probably thought his chances of striking gold were getting thinner each year.
As he finally held the golden trophy aloft on that drizzly Sunday afternoon, the popular hoop said it did not get any better than that. He may not say much at interviews, but he is known to wear his heart on his sleeve for big occasions.
Winning connections pose with their trophies and friends onstage: owner Aloysius Chew (third from left),
jockey Benny Woodworth (third from right) and trainer Mark Walker (second from right), picture Singapore Turf Club
“This is by far my biggest win in my entire career, be it here or anywhere around the world,” he said.
“The Gold Cup is the race any jockey wants to win. It’s got the best prizemoney, and has a lot of glamour. I’m so happy I’ve managed to win it.”
Woodworth let in he actually thought he didn’t have much of a gilt-edged chance after riding Elite Invincible in his work in the last couple of weeks. As the heavens opened halfway through proceedings, he had stopped wondering what cheaper metal on the periodic table his gold medal could turn into.
“I was actually surprised he won. He didn’t show me much in trackwork, he was quite plain,” he said.
“I was told he doesn’t like the wet either, but he was travelling very well in it and when the rails gap came up at the top of the straight, he kicked clear. I know this horse can stay, and he was very brave to the line.
“I’m just the replacement rider as Vlad Duric is suspended, but even then, I would have still ridden him as Vlad cannot make the weight (53kgs). That was why they engaged me.
“I’d like to thank the owner, the manager, the trainer and Mark’s team.”
Woodworth arguably won the race at the start when he made full use of his mount’s early toe to cross to the fence before allowing noted frontrunner McGregor (A’Isisuhairi Kasim) to dash past and tow him along.
The pace was moderate but as McGregor started to come back nearing the home turn, the field started to pack up with Elite Invincible drawing first blood as he took the shortest way home along the rails.
As the swoopers descending inside the final 300m, the race was marred by a nasty race fall where Noah From Goa, who was improving noticeably on the outside of Mr Clint (Jay Ford), broke down and hurled jockey Nooresh Juglall to the ground.
Juglall was quickly attended to by medical staff, and was fortunately allowed to go home later. The Mauritian jockey said he felt some swelling in the left ankle, but was otherwise fine, and would have the area of concern X-rayed on Monday.
“It all happened so quickly. The horse was full of running, but he broke down,” said Juglall.
“I was closing in very quickly on Benny’s horse. Noah From Goa would have won if not for that terrible injury – it’s just very bad luck.”
Unfortunately, Noah From Goa was found to have suffered an open condylar fracture and was subsequently euthanased.
Three horses had to be checked in the ensuing backwash, the Shane Baertschiger pair of Preditor and Blue Swede, and Sky Rocket, but upfront Elite Invincible was going full bore towards the line with only the fast-closing Circuit Land capable of landing a late blow.
The gold dream, however, belonged to Elite Invincible, Walker and Woodworth.
Elite Invincible ($60) scored by a head from Circuit Land with a brave Mr Clint, who punched the breeze three to four wide down the back to still run an enormous third, another three-quarter length away. The winning time was 2min 2.79secs for the 2000m on the Short Course on a track rated as yielding.
As Walker toasted to Elite Invincible’s win with the large entourage that headed down to the winner’s circle with Mr Aloysius Chew of Elite Performance Stable, he still found time to spare a thought for the connections of the fallen horse Noah From Goa.
“I can certainly feel for Ricardo and the owners of the horse that broke down. You never want to see what happened to that horse in a race today, whether it’s a big race or a Class 5 race,” said Walker.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen two such terrible injuries in a race in the space of a week, today’s and last Tuesday in the Melbourne Cup (The Cliffsofmoher).
"I myself lost a filly while she was running around in the paddock back home two weeks ago. They were going to feed her and they saw her with a broken shoulder.
“It’s just very unfortunate, but these things happen to horses. It’s like children at the jungle gym, they can break a collarbone, it’s Mother Nature.”
When questioned by Stewards later by the apparent departure from Walker’s change of tactics to ride the horse quiet, Woodworth replied that owners later told him in the parade ring to go forward – which Walker said he was unaware of. Woodworth was warned to advise the Stewards of such changes in future.
Thanks to the winner’s share of around $700,000 earned at that sixth Kranji win from 12 starts, Elite Invincible sees his total prizemoney leap significantly to be just a little under the $2 million mark.
He has certainly come a long way from the US$110,889 made during his UK (one win in a modest Kempton stakes race on the Polytrack mile) and Dubai career when he was known as Qatar Man and trained by Newmarket trainer Marco Botti.