Nepean springs $276 surprise in EW Barker Trophy
Baertschiger-trained 7YO leads all the way to give replacement jockey Zaki second Group success
Picking the right rider for the right pairing with the mount is paramount in horse racing.
Yesterday, trainer Shane Baertschiger's good judgment earned him the $250,000 Group 2 EW Barker Trophy over 1,400m with $276 outsider Nepean on a rain-soaked track.
The lanky Australian they call Stretch at Kranji had to look for a lightweight jockey for his front-runner after nominated jockey Matthew Kellady fell sick.
Not many riders could ride at 50kg, but Baertschiger knew Mohd Zaki was available and his noted catch-me-if-you-can style would suit his horse.
As luck would have it, their paths crossed. Baertschiger was about to see Zaki when he came up to weigh in for another race.
The deal was sealed, much to Zaki's delight. The win on Nepean was a gift from heaven.
He jumped the MA Racing Stable-owned seven-year-old - the fourth least-backed runner in the capacity field of 16 - swiftly from the favourable inner-most barrier to lead.
He was a length clear of defending champion Fame Star at the 1,000m mark. Two lengths away came the fancied Muraahib and last-start Group 1 Lion City Cup third-place getter Nowyousee.
Nepean straightened up nicely clear. Fame Star tried but could not go any closer. Muraahib struggled, too. The Tan Kah Soon-trained Nowyousee was the only serious challenger under jockey Azhar Ismail, who won the 2017 edition on Tan's Clarton Super.
But Zaki kept Nepean going strongly to win by a neat length in 1min 22.86sec.
The Ricardo Le Grange-trained Group 1 Singapore Guineas runner-up and $26 favourite Rocket Star came from around midfield to finish third, three-quarter lengths away.
"I was really, really lucky. I was coming up to weigh in for Race 8, I think, and he asked if I could ride at 50.5kg. I said 'sure' and he said you take the ride," said Zaki.
"I was so happy. Even though I wanted to ride in this race, I could not get a ride. In my heart, I said 'thank god, hopefully I win'."
He did win. It was his second feature success, after his all-the way victory on the Hideyuki Takaoka-trained Keep Away in the 2012 Group 3 Committee's Prize over 1,600m.
"Shane said just jump and go forward. Don't worry if someone comes up. Just keep him in front. This horse likes the going," said Zaki. "The horse travelled well. When I asked him in the straight, he responded."
It has been a tough year for the 40-year-old rider. He went nearly six months without income due to the Covid-19 lockdown and the ban on cross-border travel from his Johor Baru base.
He returned to ride only in early September, after a two-week quarantine and another week renewing his employment pass. The EW Barker win was his first after his comeback and fourth for the year from 65 rides.
He said he was grateful to the many people who helped him get back to riding after the shutdown, as well as the Singapore Turf Club and the Ministry of Manpower.
Baertschiger was happy Zaki's good front-running ride sealed the Group 2 win for Nepean. The horse has had fetlock chips surgery last year. Worse, the gelding pulled up very lame after his last start.
"Hopefully, he pulls up well tomorrow. I was surprised I could get him back for the races. With the light weight and wet conditions, he could maintain the whole way," he said.
"He loves the wet. I think last year's Derby Day, when Sun Marshal won, it was a wet track and he was first-up over 1,400m and he won. I think he has had four starts on the yielding track for three wins.
"After the last run, he pulled up very lame and we X-rayed him, and he has got bad arthritis in his fetlock. I gave him two weeks off and then nursed him along the way to get him to the races."