Tony Cruz is confident reigning Horse of the Year Exultant is still in his prime as the five-time Group One winner builds up to his return to the track.

Exultant had the first trial of his new campaign at Sha Tin on Tuesday morning, with jockey Zac Purton happy to keep him wide to avoid any kickback as he travelled quietly at the back of the field.

“He’s six now, in January he’ll be seven, but I’m sure he’s still in his prime time,” Cruz said. “We hope to have a great season again. He’s fit and healthy and there’s no setbacks with him, which I’m very happy about.”

Exultant is set to follow the same path to the Group One Hong Kong Vase (2,400m) on international day as he did 12 months ago, with Cruz to trial him again before his first-up run in the Group Three Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (1,800) on November 1.

The six-year-old was third in that race last year before winning the Group Two Jockey Club Cup (2,000m) and then finishing third behind Japanese pair Glory Vase and Lucky Lilac when defending his Vase crown in December.

Hong Kong’s staying ranks are decidedly thin at present and Cruz knows Exultant’s fate lies largely in whether Covid-19 restrictions will allow overseas raiders at this year’s Hong Kong International Races.

Trainer Tony Cruz and reigning Horse of the Year Exultant.

“It all depends on who makes it over for the big races, the Japanese horses are always the big worry,” he said. “They all love this track here at Sha Tin.”

Purton was happy with Exultant’s showing and knows he’ll be up for the fight come his raceday return next month.

“I thought he trialled good, I just rolled him around the outside to keep him out of the dirt,” the Australian said.

“He’s just such a warrior, he keeps turning up and giving us everything he’s got but he doesn’t have to prove anything, he’s done enough so we’ll just wait and see what he does on raceday.”

After last season’s Vase, Exultant went on to take out the QE II Cup and Champions & Chater Cup at Group One level against local opposition, with his only loss coming at the hands of stablemate Time Warp in the Hong Kong Gold Cup in February.

That was by far Time Warp’s best showing of last term and Cruz is unsure whether the seven-year-old will ever make it back to Group One company.

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“We had a bit of a setback with his left hind leg but he’s fine now, we did an MRI and nothing’s wrong with him. He’s just a bit behind time now,” said Cruz, confirming that if everything goes to plan Time Warp’s target will be the Hong Kong Cup.

“He might be past his prime, if he can’t run well this season he’ll retire.”

Star sprinter Hot King Prawn also trialled on Tuesday morning, with trainer John Size saying the six-year-old is full steam ahead to his return in the Group Two Premier Bowl (1,200m) on October 18, where Joao Moreira will ride.