Exultant and Lys Gracieux served up a finish to the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Vase of such gripping drama that it raised the Sha Tin faithful to their feet and lifted their roars to a thunderous cacophony.
The Joao Moreira-ridden Japanese filly headed Exultant with 150 meters to go, only for Hong Kong's newest hero to fight back under Zac Purton, scoring by a neck in 2:26.56.
“I thought at that point Joao had the better of me,” Purton said.
The Japanese raider's trainer, Yoshito Yahagi, said: “I thought she won.”
Elation greeted the sight of Exultant's head flashing past the post, a neck to the good over Lys Gracieux. The Irish import became only the third Hong Kong-trained galloper to claim the mile and a half feature following Indigenous (1998) and Dominant (2013).
And the crowd was still abuzz with whoops and applause when Purton returned to unsaddle – fist-pumping, finger pointing, greeting trainer Tony Cruz with a grinning “Come on, Tony! Get in!”
Purton took the plaudits when Dominant's deep-closing surge denied the British filly The Fugue five years ago. This time the Australian ace posted his mount a tracking second behind the Japanese mare, Crocosmia, before kicking on into the straight and then rallying to foil Moreira's chasing drive.
“He's just an out and out stayer and we decided to put him up on the pace today against a quality field and just let him grind it out,” Purton said. “He's the type of horse that if he's going to get into a fight in the last 200 meters over a distance like this, you'd like to be on his back.”
But even Purton thought the race had gone when Lys Gracieux, successful in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup the time before, rattled to the fore.
“Joao had the momentum. But my bloke just seemed to be loafing along a little bit and as Joao came to me he actually rolled in and bumped my horse – that seemed to fire him back up and he found his second wind then.”
Moreira gave praise to Lys Gracieux and rued the hurly-burly nature of the contest.
“No doubt her performance was outstanding against a horse that was running on his home yard and obviously knows the track inch-by inch,” the Brazilian said. “There were a few little issues people might not have seen as I got held up and horses bumped me at 600 meters. Those little things, I think, can affect the horse's performance and those probably cost her the race, but overall I've got to express that I am extremely pleased with her performance.”
For Cruz, the win was a first in the Vase and completed a full set of all four Hong Kong International Races.
“I'm over the moon, we all are,” he said. “This season he's stronger, he's more experienced, he knows his game better and he had a perfect run – Zac rode a perfect race.”
Exultant arrived in Hong Kong ahead of last season, having placed third in the G1 Irish 2,000 Guineas. The Teofilo four-year-old proved his merit when third in the Hong Kong Derby in March and built upon that with a pair of G3 wins and second to Pakistan Star in the G1 Champions & Chater Cup to round out that campaign.
“As he's getting older he's getting stronger and better,” Cruz said. “He's got that one speed and a lot of stamina, and he likes the fast track, too, so once he got that second position we were halfway there.
“This horse has no speed so you have to have him up there and being drawn wide (10) was actually good for him because nothing was going to block him. I told Zac he had to be up there – the Japanese horse (Crocosmia) led, we sat second, it was perfect.”
With a G1 in the bag, Exultant could head overseas later in the season, although the handler was cautious about making any certain plans so soon after the race.
“The Sheema Classic in Dubai would be a possibility,” he said. “I'll have to decide with the owner but we'll definitely make some entries overseas and consider those.”
The front pair drew two and a half lengths clear of third-placed Eziyra, trained by Dermot Weld.
“She had a dream run through behind the winner and she has a lot of stamina,” jockey Christophe Lemaire said. “She just lacked an instant reaction but she fought all the way to the line and at this level that is certainly her best performance. I know the Japanese filly (Lys Gracieux) and she is a very good horse.”
Mark Weld, assistant trainer to his father, said: “Christophe Lemaire gave her an amazing ride, she was in a great position all the way round. She has run a fantastic, fantastic race – I think she was the first European runner home in what is arguably the toughest contest on the day. It was a fantastic performance and she is going to make the most amazing broodmare for her owner (the Aga Khan).”
The contest's second-favourite Pakistan Star boxed home sixth of 14 after hitting trouble in what was a rough race in behind.
“Pakistan Star got tightened at the top of the straight and things just didn't go his way. We'll take him back to 2000 meters for the time being,” Cruz said.
The Andre Fabre-trained Waldgeist started favorite on the back of his fourth in the G1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October but fared no better than fifth.
“We were very tight for room and we had no luck,” jockey Pierre-Charles Boudot said.
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