It isn’t the two minutes it takes to run the BMW Hong Kong Derby that is the concern for Exultant, the key could be how the Tony Cruz-trained stayer handles the two minutes as the field parades behind the barriers.
Positioned in front of the main grandstand and with a short run to the first turn, Sha Tin’s 2,000m starting point is not just tricky tactically, but its proximity to one of the most vocal crowds in world racing creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere.
“When the horses start to go into the gates the crowd starts to rumble,” said Exultant’s jockey, Zac Purton. “And for young, inexperienced horses it can be a little bit daunting. You just have to try to manage them the best you can.”
Exultant’s preference for racing at the rear of the field means he won’t be part of the mad scramble for inside positions in the early stages, but Purton said the pre-race build-up has the potential to bring his highly strung gelding undone.
Exultant was able to win easily at his only try over the course and distance in December, but that was without the presence of 60,000 screaming spectators, and even then it caused problems.
“Last time he was in a race at this starting point it fried his head,” Purton said. “He was difficult going into the gates and that transferred into being very difficult to ride in the race. But his last run and his last trial has showed he has started to chill and I am hoping that is the case again.”
Drawing barrier 12 places Exultant close to the crowd but Purton is not worried about the effect of the gate tactically.
“Being so close to the crowd adds a little bit of salt and pepper to the situation, but really, the gate isn’t that important as he isn’t a horse that has a lot of speed.
“The wide gates for Nothingilikemore and The Golden Age hurt their chances more than mine because they are horses that have to work across to go forward. Ping Hai Star has drawn out and has to deal with some pressure going into the first corner as well.”
One chance that did draw well is Singapore Sling and barrier three has Purton marking the Tony Millard-trained South African import as “the one to beat”.
“We’ve raced him twice and he has beaten us home twice,” Purton said. “The only doubt with him is whether or not he can run the 2,000 metres.”
While Purton’s task at the start looks relatively simple, navigating a passage between or around tiring or flat-footed rivals on the home turn could prove more problematic.
“There’s a lot of dead wood in the race and a lot of horses that are not going to be able to take me into the race if I end up behind them,” he said.