Tony Cruz believes Exultant is on the right track to defend his crown in Sunday’s (16 February) HK$10 million Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup (2000m), a win that would see him become the fourth horse since 2008 to win back-to-back editions.
“Hopefully he can repeat what he did last year, he’s done everything very well leading up to this and I’m very happy with him – condition-wise he is very good,” Cruz said.
The three-time Group 1 winner coasted to a comfortable victory in last month’s Group 3 Centenary Vase Handicap (1800m) when shouldering top-weight of 133lb. Adding further merit to that performance was the fact he carried 13lb more than the next highest-rated horse in the race, and conceded a hefty 20lb to runner-up Glorious Dragon.
“I thought it was a good performance last start, it’s never easy when you’re carrying a big weight in Group 3 races but he was able to get the job done nicely,” jockey Zac Purton said.
Sunday’s test though is a different story. The return to level weights will see each of the 11 gallopers allotted 126lb, including Glorious Dragon, a scenario that should play into the hands of Exultant as he attempts to join Viva Pataca (2008 & 2009), Military Attack (2013 & 2014) and Designs On Rome (2015 & 2016).
“He came out of his last run very good, he pulled up fine, he hardly lost any weight – he feels much stronger than last year,” Cruz said, before adding, hopefully we can go places with him because he’s invited to go to Dubai.”
That invitation is for the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic (2410m) at Meydan racecourse in March. But first the Irish-bred gelding will aim to further cement his position as Hong Kong’s champion stayer when he breaks from gate 9 on Sunday.
“I’d say the barrier this time around is not ideal for him, as we know he’s a horse that’s got a lot of tactical speed and if they push up he has to go all the way back, so it could be hard from there,” the champion jockey said.
Purton has guided Exultant to each of his nine Hong Kong wins, including three at Group 1 level, this race and the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup (2400m) last year, and the LONGINES Hong Kong Vase (2400m) in 2018. Cruz credits much of his horse’s success in Hong Kong to the three-time champion jockey.
“The jockey always plays a big part in it; the relationship between the jockey and the horse is the most important – the horse knows when Zac (Purton) is riding him,” Cruz said.
Cruz and Purton have proven to be a formidable duo, winning the past two editions of this race with Time Warp (2018) and Exultant last year. A win on Sunday would give Cruz his ninth Gold Cup win (six as a trainer, two as a jockey) while Purton has the chance to grab his fourth, having also tasted success with Military Attack in 2013.
“He’s been winning all the races, he knows Zac (Purton), when Zac tells him to go he will go. So I’m pretty happy with this combination – it’s been fantastic,” Cruz added.
Exultant, formerly known as Irishcorrespondent was a two-time winner from four starts in Ireland when trained by Michael Halford and has developed into a model racehorse under Cruz’s watch.
“He’s got the right temperament, he’s very calm in the morning – anybody could ride him, he won’t buck, kick, duck or anything – he’s the most correct horse you could find and they’re very hard to find,” Cruz said.
Stablemate Time Warp also steps out in Sunday’s race, this time partnering with Joao Moreira as he seeks to regain his Gold Cup title.
“I think Exultant needs something to lead but Time Warp is in there and he loves to gallop ahead, although you can see he’s not the same as he was, he has a lot of mileage on his clock so we’ll see how he continues to go this season,” Cruz said.
The Caspar Fownes-trained Southern Legend was runner-up last year and returns for another crack at Exultant, with Chad Schofield hopping back in the plate for the first time since this race 12 months ago.
“He’s drawn really well,” Schofield said. “I thought his trial here at Sha Tin last week was really good, he gave me a terrific feel; I rode him in the race last year when he did run second and I think he’s definitely a top three chance.
“His recent runs have been somewhat below par but Caspar (Fownes) said he’s changed a few things and I think he has the horse spot on.”
Sunday’s race also features BMW Hong Kong Derby winner Furore, Citron Spirit, Ho Ho Khan, Dark Dream, Doctor Geoff, Eagle Way and Northern Superstar.
Sunday’s 10-race programme commences at 12.15pm and also features the Group 1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup (1400m), where the likes of Beauty Generation, Beat The Clock and Hot King Prawn will do battle.