Ultra-smart sprinter-miler Mr Malek was finally stripped of the tag of the best horse not to have won a Group race following his expected victory as the $17 favourite in the $150,000 Group 2 Stewards’ Cup (1600m) on Saturday.
Identified as Group race material from Day 1, the athletic son of Swiss Ace lived up to the hype through a meteoric rise as a three-year-old reeling off a memorable five-in-a-row when trained by Lee Freedman.
When he got his first taste of champagne racing, he acquitted himself extremely well, even if it was close but no cigar – third in the Group 2 Singapore Three-Year-Old Classic (1400m) and second in the Group 1 Lion City Cup (1200m), beaten on both occasions by the irrepressible Inferno, spawning the slightly condescending thought he was doomed to the bridesmaid tag.
But with Inferno now pursuing his career in Australia, and following Mr Malek’s own change of scenery to trainer Steven Burridge when Freedman exited in March, it was his time to shine on the big stage.
After Burridge was fortunately able to nip a lameness issue in the bud, award-winning owner Oscar Racing Stable’s sole horse left (after a massive stable purge) picked his way through two lead-up races with a solid first-up third followed by a slashing win in a Class 2 race over 1400m on June 5.
Mr Malek was then presented at his peak for his piece de resistance, the former second Leg of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, which is this year just a standalone feature coupled with the other remaining Leg, the Group 1 Singapore Derby (1800m) on July 25.
After a smart jump from barrier three, Mr Malek was never in doubt once jockey A’Isisuhairi Kasim parked him in fourth spot as longshot The Wild Bunch (Koh Teck Huat) rolled to the lead in the small nine-horse field.
For a few strides, Mr Malek was seen with his mouth wide open when the leader slammed on the brakes, a move which bunched up the peloton as Senor Don (Louis-Philippe Beuzelin) slid upsides and Kharisma (Marc Lerner) bridged the gap in third.
But as the tempo was cranked up again, with Senor Don eyeballing The Wild Bunch upfront as they went downhill, Mr Malek relaxed straight away, setting the stage for a mouth-watering showdown in the home straight.
As The Wild Bunch duly folded, Senor Don knocked on the door, but the real gatecrasher was that all-yellow threat lengthening up on the outside, Mr Malek.
As A’Isisuhairi built his willing partner up with a few smacks on the back of the saddle, the engine was revved up to the hilt when they collared Kharisma. A brief tussle ensued but under hands-and-heels riding, Mr Malek skipped clear for a winning effort that can be summed up as a painless watch.
Big Hearted (Vlad Duric) made a late dash on the outside to grab second place one-and-one-quarter lengths away, with Kharisma sticking on gallantly for third place another neck away.
The other well-backed runner Rocket Star (Wong Chin Chuen) never put in a blow in sixth place, but was found to be lame in the off foreleg post-race.
Clocking 1min 35.89secs for the 1600m on the Long Course, Mr Malek is now the handy moneyspinner of more than $460,000 in stakes for the Oscar Racing Stable, thanks to his imposing record of eight wins and four placings from 13 starts.
While A’Isisuhairi was at his third Stewards’ Cup after those notched with Titanium in 2016 and Siam Blue Vanda last year, it was a training breakthrough for Burridge, who in 17 years at Kranji, had never saddled any four-year-old feature winner for that matter.
Not one given to overstated post-race speeches, the Australian horseman, whose most famous among his haul of Group wins is the 2010 Group 1 Longines Singapore Gold Cup (2200m) with Risky Business and who snared his last silverware in the Group 2 Aushorse Golden Horseshoe (1200m) with Lim’s Lightning in 2018, typically deflected all the credit to the horse himself.
“He’s a very good horse. We were expecting him to run well and he’s done a good job, I’m very happy,” said Burridge.
“The first two leaders came back down the backstraight, but he settled and relaxed beautifully. He just does what he’s good at.Trainer Steven Burridge
“We’ll look at the Derby for sure, even if it won’t be easy. Big Hearted got home good today and he will be even better over 1800m.
“My horse will have to come through today’s run good of course, but he’s a good doer, so I’m not too worried. He was three kilos up today, he had a good trial last week and a good piece of work at his Tuesday gallop.
“I have to thank the owner for giving me such a nice horse, I really appreciate it as I’ve never trained for CK (Chian Kin) Phua before.
“I would also like to thank the stable, and everyone associated with his success. It’s a team effort and Harry also rode him very well.”
As an apprentice jockey, A’Isisuhairi did once combine with Burridge, his former master, for one Group success in the Group 2 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (1800m) on Wild Geese in 2014, but the Malaysian-born former two-time Singapore champion apprentice jockey said Mr Malek’s win ranked even higher among the dozen of ‘black listed’ races he has now captured, even among this three Stewards’ Cups.
The closer working relationship and the hard yards put in are the main reasons for the bigger kick from Mr Malek’s triumph.
“My first two Stewards’ Cups were great, but they were both pick-up rides. For Titanium, I got the ride after Manoel Nunes got sick, and I got Siam Blue Vanda after Daniel Moor couldn’t ride because of quarantine issues,” said the lightweight rider.
“But with Mr Malek, I’ve been associated with him from a long way. I ride him at almost all of his trackwork these days.
“You know, last time, my goal was to always win at least one Group race a year. Most of the time, it was just lucky I was at the right place at the right time, and a good ride came my way.
“But with Mr Malek, it’s just like Minister (his Kranji Mile winner, and also an ex-Freedman), I had to work for them. I had to go and look for these good horses and earn them.
“So, when Mr Malek won today and when Minister won the Kranji Mile, it gives you a bigger thrill as you were more involved in the preparation.”
At his fourth win (two apiece with Freedman and Burridge) from five rides astride Mr Malek, A’Isisuhairi said that he knew all along there was a big win for him one day, even if his racing career had been beset by a few leg issues.
“I’ve won on him four times from five rides now. I always believed in this horse, I’ve always known he was a Cup horse in the making,” he said.
“From the first time I won on him, he showed his ability even if he had a few issues along the way.
“I must say credit to Steven for getting him right. To be honest, I was quite confident, I work with this horse almost every day, and he felt better than ever coming into today’s race.
“I just hoped I had luck on our side in a small field. Sometimes, you ride the hot favourite, but things don’t work out.
“But the good thing is he’s an easy horse to handle. He’s a smart horse you can place wherever you want, he will travel in the run and give you a good finish.
“I wanted to give him as easy and relaxed a run as possible as we were on the Long Course. At the 600m, I had plenty of horse under me and once I came across Kharisma, he was just too good.”
As for the extra furlong to tackle in three weeks’ time, A’Isisuhairi was unequivocal in his assessment of the perceived stamina doubt in the Holy Grail.
“I just spoke to Steven and I told him 1800m will be no issue,” he said.
“He is so relaxed and he did it so easy over 1600m today. He was not fully tested, he’ll be right.”
Michael Lee, 03/07/2021