Tony Cruz is not deterred by the prospect of overseas runners at December’s Hong Kong International Races but knows his path to victory with star stayer Exultant is easier without them in the way.

The staying marvel kicks off his 2020-21 season on Sunday in the Group Three Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (1,800m) and he will be forced to carry the grandstand, but the legendary handler has bigger things in mind.

The six-year-old won the Hong Kong Vase (2,400m) in 2018 but is looking to bounce back after his third last year, where he was defeated as an odds-on favourite by gun Japanese duo Glory Vase and Lucky Lilac.

Exultant trials under Zac Purton on the Sha Tin all-weather track earlier this month.

“It’s a strange environment at the moment with everything that is going on, we don’t know what will come and what won’t,” Cruz said.

“For us here it isn’t bad if they don’t come but we will have to see what happens. I’m not sure what is going on but we know Exultant will be there and he will be ready on the day.”

That is a sentiment echoed by many Hong Kong connections, who are looking to grab some of the HK$95 million on offer across the four Group One races.

Cruz does not have huge expectations for Exultant in his first run since his victory in the Group One Champions & Chater Cup (2,400m) in May, but knows the tough-as-nails stayer will flourish with racing.

“The thing with him is that 1,800m is not his proper distance,” Cruz said. “As we all know, he is better over the mile and a half [2,400m] so this is just a lead up to the trial day next month.

“When he steps up to 2,000m, which he will [in the Group Two Jockey Club Cup on November 22], we will know where he is at because 1,800m is too short.”

The reigning Horse of the Year’s towering rating of 129 means more than half the field will be running out of the handicap, setting off a scramble for lightweight jockeys.

While Zac Purton will carry 133 pounds aboard Exultant, the likes of Chefano, Dark Dream, Savvy Nine and Ho Ho Khan will all race on the minimum weight of 113 pounds.

Exultant makes up one part of a three-pronged attack in the race for Cruz, who will also saddle up 2019 Derby winner Furore along with multiple Group One winner Time Warp.

Zac Purton celebrates his win aboard Exultant.

After moving to Cruz’s stable halfway through last season, Furore impressed when placing in two Group Ones – both times behind Exultant.

However question marks arose from his first-up run in the Group Two Sha Tin Trophy (1,600m), where he only beat one runner home.

“This time he will be ready, he wasn’t fit enough last time,” Cruz said. “It wasn’t his distance either, he is a mile and a quarter [2,000m] type of horse. He will go to the Cup in December, we quite like him there.

“Joao [Moreira] will ride him this week and he has committed to riding him again in the Group Two next month.”