Kok secures first Group 1 as gutsy Big Hearted lands Gold Cup
Simon Kok Wei Hoong became only the second apprentice jockey to add his name to the Singapore Gold Cup (Listed, 2000m) roll of honour after he steered Big Hearted (Hallowed Crown) to a stirring win in the handicap showpiece on Saturday.
Two-time Singapore champion apprentice jockey Shafiq Rizuan was the first to pull off the feat when he won the third and most prestigious leg of the Singapore Triple Crown series aboard Cooptado (Equal Stripes) in 2015, then sponsored by Longines.
Shafiq went on to win his second title that year and Kok, likewise, is all but home in his bid to make it back-to-back after being crowned Singapore champion apprentice jockey last year.
The Ipoh-born, equestrian-trained 25-year-old rider was struggling to contain his excitement as the realisation of having come up trumps in the SD$1 million (local) Group 1 race over 2000 metres was taking a while to dawn on him.
“As soon as I passed the winning post, I knew I had won my first Gold Cup, my first Group 1 race. So many emotions ran through my body, it’s unbelievable,” Kok said.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. But one big thing about winning such a race is to do it when I’m down to only one-kilo claim.
“I’d like to thank my boss Steven Burridge first of all, for letting me take this ride, Michael Clements (Big Hearted’s trainer) for giving me the ride, Chopsy (assistant trainer Michael White) who rang me for the ride and the owners (Falcon Racing No 7 Stable), of course.
“They trusted me and I’m glad I was able to get the job done. I won on him in a Class 4 race over 1200 metres (January 4) and I knew already he would have a big future here.”
Armed with that inside knowledge, Kok walked into the parade ring with a certain level of confidence on the $42 chance, and while the first third of the race was a little tentative, he soon gained a strong hunch that Class 4 win was about to be minted into gold.
From barrier 14, Kok originally snagged the four-year-old back to the fence, plotting the same path as Kranji Mile (Listed, 1600m) winner Aramaayo (Poet’s Voice), who had drawn widest in barrier 16.
But not 100 per cent happy with the ground traction on the inner part of a track that had been soaked all day by rain, Kok decided to switch to the less chopped up part on the outside, getting on the back of his better-fancied stablemate and top-weight (57 kilograms) Top Knight (Zoustar), but still in a rearward berth.
When Top Knight took off from the 800 metres, in line with the blueprint of his Queen Elizabeth II Cup (Listed, 1800m) (second leg) win three weeks earlier, Kok latched on, and suddenly the two light blue (Big Hearted in the second colours with the red cap to differentiate) silks of the champion Thai owner were on the prowl – almost in tandem with Top Knight in the driving seat and towing his stable companion right behind.
Pacesetter Yulong Edition (Makfi) swung for home as the lamplighter but was clearly running on fumes. Elite Incredible (Valid Stripes), who enjoyed an economical rails-hugging run in his slipstream from the start, drew first blood upon straightening, but it was another runner close to the speed, Minister (Street Sense), who was laying down the law the best at the 300-metre mark.
At that point, Minister had the vote for back-to-back Singapore Gold Cups for his trainer Lee Freedman after Mr Clint (Power) (who never put in a blow this year) last year, but Clements’ formidable duo were gobbling him up with every stride.
With only 50 kilograms on his back, Big Hearted just had that edge on Top Knight. He was the first to overpower Minister, and even if the Falcon pair did have a slight bumping duel close home, the ‘second stringer’ continued on his merry way to score by half a length.
Probably anchored down by his weight in the concluding stages, Top Knight just lacked that killer instinct this time, weakening to concede second place to Minister by a length and three quarters. The winning time was 2.03.90 for the 2000 metres on the Short Course on a track rated as yielding.
“From the wide barrier, I had to make a decision wherever he lands. Eventually, we settled at the back,” said Kok.
“Around the first bend, we were on the inside of Top Knight, but my horse was not travelling that well. So I peeled him out to cruise up behind Top Knight and he was then travelling good underneath me.
“I know he has a good finish, and when we passed Minister in the last 200 metres, I was confident I would win. He wanted to lay in, but I still had plenty underneath me.
“In that type of going, he just kept strongly to the line.”
Clements admitted he thought Top Knight was still his leading hope (he also saddled longshot Vittoria Perfetta (Zoustar) who was ridden by Saifudin Ismail) in spite of the sterner handicap conditions, but Big Hearted’s featherweight did sway him more than once.
“I’ve been leaning towards Top Knight all along, even if I knew he was always going to be vulnerable. He won weight-for-age races against horses like Mr Clint and Aramaayo at level weights, but it was his first time in a handicap race against the same horses,” said the Zimbabwean-born conditioner.
“Once the rain came, I was even more confident, even if Big Hearted also won on rain-affected tracks. In the end, they both ran well, but the pull in weights favoured Big Hearted.
“Top Knight lost no marks, but what is even more gratifying with Big Hearted is that I bought him as a yearling for the owner at the Inglis Melbourne sale.
“He cost AUD$120,000 and to see come all the way and win a Gold Cup is an immense source of satisfaction. It’s been a great progress taking him from 1400 metres to the mile, then 1800 metres and now 2000 metres.
“From the outside draw, I told Simon to try and get cover and not to be too far back. I was a bit concerned he was so far back but once he made ground around the bend, I knew he would be in the finish.
“Coming on the outside was the right move. On that rain-affected track, the outside is that much smoother, not as churned up.
“Half a furlong into the straight, I had a good feeling my two horses would run close to one-two and halfway up the straight, I was even more confident.
“The leading horse (Minister) was quite far in front, but my two horses were making a lot of ground. Simon did come across a little but that didn’t affect the result as Top Knight was not pulling any ground off Big Hearted then.
“As for Vittoria Perfetta, he finished midfield (10th) but he stumbled out of the barriers and lost ground. The race was over for him there and then as he’s a horse who needs to be on the pace.”
Clements praised Kok for his heady ride, and let on that he wanted no other rider shortly after Big Hearted won at his last start in a Class 3 race over 1800 metres with Maia up three weeks ago.
“We asked Simon to take the ride straight after his last win, and it was confirmed right away,” he said.
“Simon had a great season last year, this year, with the disruptions, he’s done okay and has picked up since, but that Gold Cup win will definitely be a big lift for him.”
Having now stretched his lead to 13 winners on Hakim Kamaruddin (32 winners versus 19 winners), Kok is all but home for a second consecutive gong in the apprentice jockey title fight, but the humble young man was still not counting his chickens.
“I’ve said it before, but I don’t think about the premiership. My focus is to win as many races as possible and just keep learning,” he said.
With that sixth win as well as three placings from 12 starts, Big Hearted has racked up more than SD$790,000 in prize-money for the Falcon Racing No 7 Stable.