The talented but unpredictable Wimbledon served an ace that not many saw coming on Friday night, but which completely eclipsed the much-hyped comebacks of star gallopers War Affair and Spalato.
The $125,000 Kranji Stakes A over 1200m had been picked as the stage for the two champions to launch their much-anticipated returns amid various health concerns, with the 2014 Singapore Horse of the Year War Affair away the longest after more than one year.
Interestingly, War Affair and Spalato had never gone head-to-head before despite sharing 34 starts between them, with a previous match-race shelved after War Affair hurt himself last September, and their paths had somehow drifted off thereafter.
Invariably, the boom on the so-called clash of titans had fizzled out with neither champions at the peak of their powers upon their comebacks, but the purists were still harbouring some hope their sheer class could still see them duke it out for a memorable showdown in the home straight.
Unfortunately, the hard truth was such that the cobwebs had not been entirely blown away first-up.
With the steadier of 59.5kgs also anchoring them down, their tasks were never meant to be easy against fitter horses, the vast majority of which they were giving weight to, notwithstanding their much loftier stature.
Spalato ($18 favourite), who was ridden in a more rearward spot than usual by first-time partner Alan Munro, tried to make some ground upon straightening, but was seen labouring under pressure, while War Affair (Danny Beasley, $28), who plotted the widest course to issue his challenge, was not leaping out of the ground either.
With the two stars failing to show up, it was the supporting cast who was stealing the limelight upfront. The well-backed ($20) Lincoln Road (Corey Brown) was then looking the most likely to benefit from the two giants’ fall, as the strong frontrunner clung on doggedly to his lead, but Wimbledon ($49), who had not left him an inch from the outset, wore him down with every stride to eventually get the nod by three parts of a length.
Cavallo (John Sundradas), another roughie ($134) who had slipped under the radar, stuck on solidly for third another half-a-length away. The winning time was 1min 10.31secs for the 1200m on the Short Course.
Winning trainer James Peters, who was already sealing the first treble of his budding career after White Hunter (Nooresh Juglall) and Archer Company (Olivier Placais) saluted earlier before going on to make it a four-timer with Night Flight (Derreck David) in the last race, was beside himself at the winner’s circle.
“This horse keeps improving all the time and he’s done a great job tonight,” said Peters.
“They went at a pretty softish tempo upfront and that suited him, especially on the Short Course.
“After what happened to him at his last start when he just went off the track at the 800m, I think changing his headgear (from blinkers to crossover noseband and winkers) has done the trick.
“He trialled well with that gear last week, didn’t pull as hard and tonight he was better behaved and Barend rode him very well.”
After winning an earlier race with Vertical Start, the South African lightweight rider was bringing up his 699th winner aboard the Snitzel entire.
“Credit to James as that horse didn’t corner so well last time. He’s still got this tendency to take off, but I was playing along with him to keep him in check,” he said.
“I would let him take two strides and then bring him back. In that way, I was able to control him and once he straightened up he gave his all.”
Formerly prepared by Michael Freedman, Wimbledon has proven to be a handy moneyspinner to his owners, the China Horse Club, having now racked up a total of six wins – his first for Peters - and 14 placings from 26 starts for stakes earnings in excess of $540,000.
In the War Affair (7th) and Spalato (8th) camp, the mood was not all that underwhelming after the defeats given both parties had been prepared for such an outcome when taking into consideration the less than ideal circumstances surrounding their respective comebacks.
Beasley, who was reuniting with War Affair after two years since their memorable association during his prolific three-year-old campaign, was by far the one taking away the most upbeat lesson from the run.
“I’m still very happy with his run. He still ran a nice race first-up,” said the Australian jockey.
“He ran on from the back but levelled out at the 100m. He will come on from that first run and this prep, he will beat all these horses who finished in front of him tonight.”
Spalato’s trainer John O’Hara was slightly more conservative but his feedback will certainly give fans room for some positive outlook towards future endeavours.
“I knew he would face a stiff task tonight. His preparation had not been ideal as he missed one week’s work after the viral infection,” said O’Hara about the ‘big-leg’ issue that caused his warrior to withdraw from the Group 3 Garden City Trophy on August 21.
“He was on antibiotics and we all know how that can knock a horse out. I was prepared for him to get beaten, especially with 59.5kg on his back, although if he had won, it would have been a bonus.
“The most important thing tonight was to see him come through in one piece. He didn’t bleed and he’s pulled up well.”
Both O’Hara and War Affair’s handler Bruce Marsh will see how their charges pull up before deciding if they will press on towards their common main target, the Singapore Triple Crown series kicking off with the Group 1 Panasonic Kranji Mile (1600m) on October 9.