Trainer Ricardo Le Grange said South African multiple-Group 3 winner Katak could not have timed his return to form any better, but he would still need to rise to the occasion in the $1 million Group 1 Singapore Gold Cup (2000m) on Sunday.
Unbeaten in five starts in South Africa, three of the wins coming in the Cape Winter Series (all Group 3s from 1600m to 2400m), the son of Potala Palace came to Singapore with a lot of hype around, but unfortunately had his first taste of defeat at his Kranji debut in a Polytrack 1200m race in September.
Racegoers will remember he had some mitigating factors, though. One year getting bustled around the world from quarantine to quarantine, and only two months to get battle-ready were the main culprits.
File picture of Katak when he just arrived at Kranji.
The entire, who ran last, was also ridden upside down – four wide in a speed race that clearly didn’t fit his staying profile.
The second start in the Group 1 Raffles Cup over a more suitable distance of 1600m, but only a fortnight later, was no better. He beat two home, but still finished down the course.
The South African connections of Marsh Shirtliff, his Singapore-based son Guy, and Bryn Ressell, could have felt down, but they were certainly not out.
They kept the faith in Katak and Le Grange, and the penny finally dropped at his next start in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup (1800m) where ridden more prominently by a new partner in Matthew Kellady, he was being hailed the winner when he grabbed the lead down the straight only to go down by half-a-length to the eventual winner Hard Too Think.
If there were any concerns that gallant second at his third Kranji start could be a flash in the pan, Le Grange has seen signs that suggested otherwise.
He is convinced the five-year-old has peaked when it mattered.
“After his run in the QEII Cup, I feel he’s had the best month since he’s been here,” said the South African handler.
“There’s a glint in his eyes, his coat looks great and his blood picture is great.
“He has really come on from that last start in the QEII Cup where he finally showed his best.
“I think it’s taken a while for him to acclimatise, as we saw at his first two starts. He has really acclimatised now, and his fitness level has kept going up.
“He’s had a great preparation towards the Gold Cup, the race he was brought for. He trialled very well last week (won a barrier trial under Kellady on November 2).”
Le Grange still respects the opposition, even if the handicap conditions of the time-honoured race give him a bit of an edge. Katak carries only 51.5kgs, in receipt of as much as 6.5kgs from Lim’s Lightning.
The narrowed gap due to the weight compression of one kilo to four points (instead of two) makes little difference in his case given he would have carried the minimum weight of 50kgs otherwise.
“Katak comes into the race very well at the handicap, but I saw Daniel’s (Meagher) horse (Lim’s Lightning) two days ago and he looks fantastic,” said Le Grange.
“He is in immaculate condition, and it’s not just him. I respect everybody in a race where only the premier horses race.
“He jumps from barrier eight after the scratchings. It’s a middle gate that gives us all the options, Matty will work it out.”
Kellady has only had a handful of rides for Le Grange, even during his time with Patrick Shaw in the past, but the Ipoh-born rider was the right man in the right place at the right time.
“After Marc (Lerner) jumped off, I had to look for another jockey and someone told me why not Matty as he’s got very good hands,” said Le Grange.
“I rang Shane (Baertschiger) up and he told me Matty was available in the QEII Cup. Matty did absolutely nothing wrong with the horse, and I was happy to stick with him.
“He rides the horse in trackwork, and I’m sure he’ll give him another great ride this Sunday.”
Should they strike gold, it will be a first Group 1 success for the underrated but hard-working hoop, not so for Le Grange who has already annexed a Group 1 win in the 2017 Queen Elizabeth II Cup with Quechua, but it will be a first Singapore Gold Cup win as a trainer in his own right.
He was Shaw’s assistant-trainer when Mr Line (2006), Quechua (2014) and Cooptado (2015) captured the handicap feature, then run over 2200m.
“I’m going into the race with a great chance,” he said.
“It would be a dream come true for not just me, but also for Marsh, Guy and Bryn. They invested so much money to take this horse through the long haul to get here when he could have run in races like the July Handicap back home.
“It would be a great story if Katak wins on Sunday.”