My best Pal looks in Derby frame of mind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am

MY heart and my head tell me that the Derek Cruz-trained Our Pal (Next Best) can win today's Derby at Sha Tin.

The strapping chestnut son of Bakharoff provided me with my last winner as a full-time jockey after five years riding in the territory.

He also gave me a tremendous thrill when I came back to score on him on International Cup and Bowl day last December.

But how I can recall when Derek first legged me up on him for a Class Five event at Happy Valley not much more than a year ago.

Derek seemed extraordinarily confident of victory that day but little did he, or I for that matter, expect Our Pal to become the likely Derby favourite.

Our Pal was in Class Five, testing the tight city track for the first time, after several tantalising near misses at Sha Tin.

I remember how nervous he was and that he sweated up. After being difficult to load, he jumped last in a field of 11 going round the 1,800-metre track and raced like an inexperienced two-year-old.

Circling the field going around the first turn I immediately got the impression that this horse was something special.

He seemed to run by his opposition with absolute ease. Going up the Rock there was an opportunity to save ground on the inside but I had so much horse under me there seemed no point at all to take risk being checked when I was certain of winning.

Ultimately he coasted home, winning by 31/2 lengths despite hanging in as he shied away from the tall, imposing Happy Valley grandstands.

After that encounter Our Pal continued to mature. He won his next start for Derek and myself and then, having put in a very game effort when just touched off by Thunder And Gold, he redeemed himself by winning twice more - providing me with that last victory while riding full-time in Hong Kong.

Then came the surprise reunion last December thanks to the American challenger Four Star Dave in the Bowl.

His presence meant I was eligible for outside rides and when I arrived at trackwork a few days before the big day I was very anxious to see if there been any improvement in Our Pal.

Well, it was noticeable straight away. Our Pal was relaxed in his stable. His temperament was much more relaxed and his hind quarters distinctly more musculed.

On raceday he walked onto the track like a true professional, seeming to pose for photographers as they clicked away.

This time, with his new-found confidence, he stood in the barrier like a soldier, waiting patiently for the gates to spring open.

From barrier one he jumped smoothly and settled in a perfect position, just off the pace in third. As the race progressed, he easily worked his way towards the front and once he hit the lead, he pinned his ears and began to drive for the wire.

With his head down, he gave 110 per cent and because of his consistency and tenacity, he appears to have all the attributes of a potential Derby winner.

Don't worry about his Derby Trial fourth. After two months off the track he would have needed the outing and it will also have given Tony Cruz a chance to get re-acquainted with him.

I'm confident that Derek will now have him spot on and Our Pal's courage and experience should lead to Derby glory.