Billed as an exciting sprint race worthy of a Group One label, the S$500,000 Gr.2 Merlion Trophy certainly lived up to that tag with Polytrack specialist Distinctive Darci charging late for a most thrilling win on Friday night.
Former Singapore champion three-year-old Countofmontecristo was being hailed the winner when he hit the front halfway up the straight, but Distinctive Darci, who just grows another leg on Polytrack, unwound with a sustained finish for Vlad Duric on his inside to deny him by a neck on the line.
Bred by Nearco Stud, Distinctive Darci was purchased by Te Akau Racing for $100,000 from Curraghmore's 2015 New Zealand Bloodstock draft.
The winning time was 1min 11.13secs for the 1200m on the Polytrack.
Duric said the race was probably won when he tacked onto the back of $9 favourite Countofmontecristo who was slicing through the pack from centrefield at the 600m to take closer order, with Rodd evidently anxious not to leave it too late for his ultimate assault.
Into the straight, Michael Clements’ champion kept up his momentum to sweep past Speedy Dragon with relative ease. The son of Echoes Of Heaven then shook off a surprisingly very tenacious Lincoln Road with a bit more graft, but once that was taken care of, looked well on his way towards a resounding victory with one furlong to go.
But right on their heels, Duric was throwing everything bar the kitchen sink at Distinctive Darci as the four-year-old gelding snuck up on Countonmontecristo’s nearside, gamely chipping away at the margin with every stride to eventually land the chocolates.
Trainer Mark Walker has claimed two Singapore champion trainer titles (2015 and 2017), won almost every conceivable big race in his native New Zealand, but quite oddly, has not been all that dominant in feature races at Kranji since his relocation in 2010, even if 10 was a nice round figure.
Distinctive Darci was bringing up his 10th ‘black type’ win and his second Group Two win after War Affair won the Aushorse Golden Horseshoe in 2011. Walker has not yet won a Group One race at Kranji, but a grand premiere might be in the offing with the third Leg, the Lion City Cup coming up in four weeks, though the astute trainer was more concerned about the horse than his own record.
“It was a big step-up for him tonight, and he’s come up with a fighting win,” said Walker who trained Distinctive Darci’s sire Darci Brahma to many Group One wins in New Zealand.
“It’s three from three with blinker-pacifiers on. I also have to thank Paul Summers, the Club farrier for getting his feet right, he’s a different horse at the moment, he’s really put it altogether.
“I’ll have to speak to the owners Dato Terry Lee and his daughter Theresa whether we’ll go to the Lion City Cup. It’s on turf as you know, he’s a Polytrack horse, and we need to have a think about that.”
Duric may not have remembered it, but he actually handed Walker his first Group success aboard Flying Fulton in the Group 3 Committee’s Prize in 2011. Just standing at the presentation dais holding his trophy aloft with the Kiwi trainer meant a lot to the 2017 Singapore champion jockey, who had yet again, let his amazing strength in the saddle make the difference in a tight finish.
“Mark has been a wonderful supporter of mine from Day 1, and it’s great to win a big race for him tonight,” said Duric.
“Distinctive Darci is such a fantastic big horse. He loves this surface, he won eight races on it before and now he’s won nine, which is wonderful as it’s his first Group win.
“I had a lot of respect for horses like Countofmontecristo and Lim’s Cruiser, but I gave my bloke a chance on the Poly. It was funny old race, we had a beautiful run but got a little pushed out.
“At the 600m, Michael was back behind me but he did what he usually does on Countofmontecristo when they made a move. I decided in a split second to cut back in and follow him through.
“In the straight, he just kept finding and on the line, he got there for an outstanding win.”
With that ninth win, Distinctive Darci has taken his stakes earnings around the S$840,000 mark for the Fairdeal Stable owned by Dato Lee.
“He’s a very good horse and the jockey rode him perfectly,” said the owner of previous greats like Bocelli and Saddle Up. -STC