Zac Purton maintains Exultant is a work in progress and the Tony Cruz-trained stayer’s ultimate goal is still two months away, but the jockey is still hopeful of upsetting Nothingilikemore in Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile at Sha Tin.

With a win over the BMW Hong Kong Derby course and distance of 2,000 metres already, Exultant is viewed by many as the top pick for the HK$18 million showpiece on March 18 and Sunday’s race is seen as a stepping stone.

When the four-year-old series kicks off on Sunday it is likely the John Size-trained Nothingilikemore, a winner of five from six races and with a rating of 112 already, will start a short-priced favourite.

“I’m still going into the race thinking I have a good chance to win,” Purton said. “He has shown he is competitive at that distance against older horses, so against his own age, especially if he gets the right circumstances, he should be right in it.

“Of course, there is Nothingilikemore and I think that in the four-year-old series ratings have to be respected and they suggest he should – and will – be favourite.

“He hasn’t done much wrong on race day, but I did see a chink in his armour last start. He seemed to be off his game.”

Zac Purton pleased as Exultant stamps himself as a serious Hong Kong Derby contender

Purton was referring to Nothingilikemore’s sole defeat on international day in December when the gelding blew the start badly and was beaten by a short margin.

“If he turns up in the same frame of mind he might be a little bit vulnerable,” Purton said.

On paper it would seem 1,600m will be more suitable for Nothingilikemore than Exultant, but Purton pointed out that Size’s horse is untested at the trip and his own mount might benefit from a faster tempo back in distance.

“I think coming back to a mile is actually very suitable for him. The speed is going to be better, he only has to go around one turn and he can get into a rhythm going down the back straight,” he said. “Everything is laid out for him to behave better and we hope that is what he is going to do.”

Even when able to win a Class Two going away last time out, Exultant proved difficult to ride and Purton said the horse still needed to improve his racing manners if he is to win a Derby.

Tony Cruz’s Hong Kong Derby hope Exultant trials with the hood on – but did he relax too much?

Cruz experimented with a hood in a trial last week, but has decided against using that gear on race day, for now.

“The hood is still an option for when he goes back up in distance,” Purton said. “I think he obviously has the ability to win a Derby, but being in the right frame of mind to do it is the key factor.

“Last start he wasn’t in the right frame of mind and he got away with it. With the pressure and big crowd of a Derby he won’t get away with it though.

“We have two races, this Sunday and the Classic Cup next month, to get him into the right rhythm.”