Just over a year ago, the stage was set for what was billed as the match-race of the century, but who would have thought then it would take another one long year for it to finally materialise.
War Affair (pictured above), the then reigning 2014 Singapore Horse of the Year and Spalato, the other horse to have taken all before him the same year, even bouncing back from a disappointing Hong Kong stint, had never crossed swords before.
The whole of Kranji was smacking their lips at the prospect of seeing the two champions finally go head-to-head in the Group 3 Jumbo Jet Trophy (1400m) on September 6, 2015, but three days before D-Day, the whole ballyhoo came to nought for connections, racing fans and promoters alike.
War Affair was sensationally scratched after hurting his suspensory ligament at the stables. It was not career-threatening, but the O’Reilly gelding’s former trainer Alwin Tan preferred to err on the side of caution, leaving the coast clear for Spalato to go and score a hollow win.
Some still clung on to a slim hope the clash of titans could still be revived in the Singapore Triple Crown series, but War Affair fought a losing fitness battle against time, was spelled, moved stables and has not been seen since due to ongoing fitness issues.
As luck would have it, Spalato was not spared from the vagaries of racing either. After a below-par run in the first Leg of the Triple Crown, the Panasonic Kranji Mile, an irregular blood count saw the son of Elusive City miss the last two Legs, the Raffles Cup and the Longines Singapore Gold Cup.
He ran second in the Group 2 EW Barker Trophy (1400m) last year before seemingly returning to his best earlier this year with new partner Corey Brown, but a bleeding attack in the Group 1 Lion City Cup (1200m) in April proved the latest speed bump.
After another chequered run of aborted comebacks due to fitness and health issues – the latest episodes being Spalato dropping out of the Group 3 Garden City Trophy (1200m) after succumbing to a ‘big-leg’ issue and War Affair dodging his long-intended race comeback, last Sunday’s Group 3 Jumbo Jet Trophy (1400m) in search of a “softer option” – it would seem Singapore’s two highest-rated horses after Rocket Man (129) couldn’t avoid playing chicken anymore.
Barring any last-minute mishap, Spalato (120) and War Affair (117) will finally be facing the starter in the same race this Friday. Ironically, after sidestepping each other in all the higher profile events cited earlier, that much-awaited joust will now take place in just a plain Kranji Stakes A race over 1200m at a standalone Friday night meeting.
But listening to both trainers, John O’Hara (Spalato) and Bruce Marsh (War Affair), that two-horse race hype has lost a bit of its gloss in their books. To them, after the problems the two gallopers had both come through, that first-up race is only a first stepping stone to hopefully loftier targets down the road, with any notion of one-upmanship taking a major backseat – for now.
“It was going to happen someday, especially as they may both be going for the Singapore Triple Crown series,” said O’Hara who has prepared Spalato to all his 16 runs for 10 wins and close to $1.7 million in stakes.
“But look, it’s been a year since we’ve been talking about that and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since. I’m more concerned about how Spalato will run first-up.”
Marsh echoed the same sentiments as O’Hara, who happens to be his next-door neighbour over at the new stabling blocks at Kranji.
“I’m just happy to get him to the races,” said the Kiwi handler, who will saddle the Ong family’s 14-time winner and $2.7 million earner for the first time at his 21st outing.
“I didn’t want to give him a gut-busting run first-up in the Jumbo Jet and looking at that race on Sunday, I’m glad he didn’t run. He trialled super the week before, but he was going into the Jumbo Jet with only one barrier trial under the belt, and it wasn’t ideal.
“We dodged Debt Collector, but we will bump into Spalato, but that’s okay. Whether it’s a hard race or not, I don’t know, but it’s just great to see horses of this calibre come back and all we want is to see them pull up well and move on to bigger and better things.”
Just like for Spalato, the Singapore Triple Crown series is in the crosshairs for War Affair, but Marsh would not get too ahead of himself.
“Let’s see how he pulls up first. He may head to the Kranji Mile or he may have another 1400m race in two weeks’ time, but let’s see how he comes through Friday first,” he said.
“His work was lovely this morning (Tuesday). I just don’t know about the Short Course, though – it’s against him, but his condition is definitely better than what it was ahead of the Jumbo Jet, and whatever he does on Friday, he will improve on.”
O’Hara was on the same page about Spalato, except that one week of missed work was an extra burden weighing on his mind.
“He is as good as he can be. With the right antibiotic treatment, he got over his leg swelling issue over a week ago,” he said.
“It’s obviously not the best prep coming from a three-month break (after the bleeding) as he’s missed work but he’s picked up well. He had a 1000m jumpout down the back on Saturday and Vlad Duric who rode him was happy with him.
“He could have been fitter, but we have to start somewhere. If he had run in the Garden City, he wouldn’t have run in this race on Friday, but it’s also a 1200m race which is ideal, and it will be the race that will tell us where he is at.
“We’ll have to see how he runs and pulls up after Friday’s race before looking further ahead at races like the Kranji Mile (1600m on October 9) and so on. One step at a time.” -AAP