Tony Cruz believes Exultant could prove to be the best stayer Hong Kong has ever produced. That may be so, but the three-time Group 1 winner will have to win a second Hong Kong Vase on Sunday (8 December) just to stake a claim for overall top status on the current scene.
The Irish import had the misfortune to arrive at Sha Tin just as Beauty Generation began to cast an imposing shadow across all pretenders to the high claim of being Hong Kong’s singular best.
There is no denying Beauty Generation’s outright champion status over the past two seasons – seven Group 1 wins, a 10-race undefeated streak, the all-time highest rating in Hong Kong history and so on – but two defeats in the lead-up to a potential third win in the Group 1 Hong Kong Mile (1600m) have ruffled his aura of invincibility.
Exultant, meanwhile, heads into a tilt at a second Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) victory off an impressive Group 2 Jockey Club Cup (2000m) score that, along with his domination of the 1800m-2400m realm last term, places him in the same bracket as the circuit’s outstanding stayers of yesteryear, Viva Pataca, Vengeance Of Rain and Designs On Rome.
“I think he’s as good as those horses, he could be better than those horses. I’ve got confidence in him,” Cruz said.
Zac Purton is the man blessed with riding both Exultant and Beauty Generation.
“I think that’s a fair call by Tony,” the champion jockey said. “We’ve always struggled with our horses over this distance and he just seems like he’s built for it, he loves it. And he’s consistent; he turns up and runs a decent race for us every time.
“You could say he’s been in the shadow of Beauty Generation but I do also think he’s been given his rightful credit for what he’s been achieving. You can’t ask a horse to do any more than what he did last season.”
What the Eddie Wong-owned Exultant did was win the Vase (2400m) from top opponents who have since franked the form in emphatic style; he then added the Hong Kong Gold Cup (2000m) and Champions & Chater Cup (2400m), and smashed rivals off top-weight in an 1800m Group 3 handicap. All of that deservedly bagged the Champion Stayer and Champion Middle-Distance titles.
“The only one he didn’t win was the QEII Cup and that was because of the barrier he drew and the way the race was run, otherwise he wins that as well – he won everything else,” Purton said
“When you go through and look at the horses he was able to beat in the Vase last year: Waldgeist was very unlucky in the race and he’s gone on to beat one of the best in the world (Enable) to win the Arc; Lys Gracieux has gone on to do great things as well, so there was plenty of depth in the field. There was no fluke about his win, he did it the tough way and he got the job done.”
Rising to his potential
Exultant’s career began with Michael Halford at Copper Beach Stables, not far from the Curragh. Known then as Irishcorrespondent, the bay with the grey-streaked tail was unraced as a juvenile but won his first two starts at three and then for his third outing was pitched right into the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas.
There was plenty of merit in placing third behind Churchill, albeit seven lengths adrift. Fifth-place in the Group 3 Hampton Court Stakes (1993m) at Royal Ascot was to be his farewell as Hong Kong beckoned.
“John McCormack picked him out and luckily I was one of the first ones to respond,” Cruz said. “I was actually on the reserve list and there were a whole lot of other trainers on that list. He was a good horse, I could see that: I liked the look of him so I got back to John pretty fast.
“I actually offered him to two other owners and they weren’t interested. Eddie (Wong) was a little way down the line but I asked him and he said he’d be interested so we quickly got onto it and bought the horse.”
There was only one target at that stage and Exultant looked well on track for it when he strolled to a Class 2 handicap win over 2000m at his third Sha Tin start around Christmastime in 2017.
“He was bought as a Hong Kong Derby prospect, we always saw him as a stayer, he was always going to improve once we got him up in distance, and I always felt he had the potential to be a real Group horse,” Cruz said.
Exultant wasn’t far off in the Derby but lacked the required zip for the three legs of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series: he placed fourth in the Classic Mile, second in the Classic Cup (1800m) and then third in the Derby (2000m) itself. But that first season in his new home was one of development and he proved his quality and abundant promise later in the campaign with a pair of Group 3 handicap wins, the Queen Mother Memorial Cup (2400m) and the Premier Plate (1800m).
The talented but one-dimensional four-year-old with heart had by last December developed into an adaptably brilliant rising five-year-old with race craft and teak-hard toughness.
“We always had high hopes going to last year’s Vase because we knew he was a good stayer, I reckon he’d get two miles even, not a problem,” Cruz said. “I was pretty confident but we knew his biggest test would come from the Japanese horses and that’s what happened.”
Exultant led the Vase field into the home straight but looked beaten when the crack Japanese mare Lys Gracieux edged ahead mid-stretch. The Teofilo gelding fought back though, and nosed ahead at the line.
“You’re always shouting for them to fight back and he did,” Cruz said. “The satisfaction of that victory was pretty tremendous. We thought we’d got beat but Zac kept going and when the pressure was really on, the horse showed his fighting heart. That’s how he won.”
Purton, like the watching Sha Tin faithful, was taken aback by Exultant’s thrilling rally.
“Whenever any horse goes past you in the straight you tend to think it’s over, you don’t expect them to kick back but he lifted himself off the canvas and he was very strong through the line. That’s been a characteristic of his for quite some time now, he makes everyone work to get past him and fortunately it was over a distance where he could respond and pick himself back up and get going again,” the Australian said.
“He’s just got a great set of lungs; he doesn’t give up, he just keeps galloping; I think that’s his biggest asset.”
Better than ever?
Cruz and Purton share the view that Exultant’s development did not end there. The trainer in particular is adamant that his charge is at a new peak following his impressive win last time in the Group 2 Jockey Club Cup.
“Exultant is on the up. He’s rising, still improving, and this is his prime. I’ve never seen him so well,” Cruz said
“The way he pulled up after his last race, I’ve never seen him like that before. He looked so good; it didn’t take a thing out of him. Some horses, they lose weight after a race, but him? No – not this season. Last season he would have but this season he’s so much stronger.”
Purton has ridden Exultant to every one of his eight wins in Hong Kong going back almost two years and is well-placed to judge the bay’s progression.
“He’s developed as he’s gone,” he said. “He had no speed in his races at all early on in his time here, and now, especially in the last six months, he’s starting to show more gate speed and he’s giving himself more of a chance.”
Purton’s words are perhaps ominous for his rivals but maybe not as disconcerting as Cruz’s bullish assertion.
“This is his prime, at age five, he’s better now than he was last time, he’s a stronger horse coming into the race this year, he’s a serious horse,” the handler said.
Purton echoed the sentiment, but with a note of caution.
“He’s going terrific,” he said. “His last win was very good, I just hope that hasn’t flattened him for this race, it’s a strong field, it’s never an easy race for us but he’s going to be in with a chance.
“Tony has big plans for him this season and that can take things out of a horse. He’s going to need to manage him well. He’s managed him perfectly so far and Tony knows what it takes to train these good horses. I have a lot of confidence in him and the way he’s going to present the horse and his plans – I’m excited for the season ahead.”
As for the question of who will be top dog on the Hong Kong scene when Sunday’s sun sets, Purton is not losing faith in his other star galloper’s ability to bounce back and become only the second triple winner of the Hong Kong Mile.
“I hope he can do it,” he said. “This year there are a few question marks over Beauty Generation but he hasn’t been getting beat far, he’s had little excuses and if things pan out well for him we hope he can do it again.”
And if both horses should win and continue to thrive, the talk is that Purton could enjoy the thrill of riding Hong Kong’s two biggest stars at Meydan’s Dubai World Cup meeting in March. But first, there’s the most important business of deciding supremacy and defending home pride at the ‘Turf World Championships’.