BIG days at the racetrack seldom work out in the way they’d been planned or envisaged, but Mike de Kock and his team believe that one should accept whatever transpires in the good spirit of the game. Invariably, racing’s disappointments are followed by riveting highlights.
Pressure will take its toll if everything gets too serious, so Mike’s favourite race day motto is, “win or lose, we shoot the booze!” The defeats of the well-fancied fancied Whistle Stop (Gr 2 Dingaans) and the popular Ilha Bela (Gr1 Summer Cup) at Turffontein on Saturday briefly dampened the enthusiasm in the De Kock camp, but the corks were popping again after Espumanti notched a commanding win in the Gr2 Absa Rewards Ipi Tombe Challenge over 1600m – keeping the stable in winning feature race form.
Espumanti (Anthony Delpech), reeled in the pacemaker Sea Shadow (8), to win going away. (JC Photos).
Bred in the Northern Hemisphere, Espumanti started her racing career half-a-year behind her Southern counterparts for growth and development but, as Mike often points out, imports like these make significant improvement when Mother Nature kicks in with scheduled helpings of maturity.
Espumanti has progressed steadily. Over the last several months she’s caught up with others from her age and jockey Anthony Delpech assessed after Saturday’s race: “She’s stronger this year. We had a bit to find on Sea Shadow going through the 400m-mark, but I had a lot of filly under me. She was going great when she hit the front. She’s special.”
Espumanti’s good, alright! On exposed form, and judged on this win, she has improved eight lengths since her last meeting with Saturday’s principal rival Do You Remember, who gave her 2kg and a 2.50-length beating in the fillies Guineas early in March of this year, when both earned place money behind subsequent Triple Crown heroine, Cherry On The Top.
Since then Day To Remember has proved herself to be a filly from the top drawer, winning the Gr1 Woolavington Stakes followed by a close third in the Vodacom Durban July.
It goes almost without saying that Geoff Woodruff’s high-class runner needed her first run after a four-month rest on Saturday. Day To Remember will be a lot more competitive if she were to take on Espumanti at a more or less equal level of fitness next time around, but, that said, Mary Slack’s daughter of Dansili has further improvement to come.
The prospect of another feature-race clash between Espumanti and Day To Remember is quite mouthwatering. If Ormond Ferraris throws his progressive Gr3 Gauteng Fillies Mile winner Close The Gap into the ring with them, sparks are likely to fly!
Mike commented: “Espumanti is getting better as she goes on and we’ll take her to Cape Town for the Paddock Stakes next. She’ll be a great addition to Wilgerbosdrift Stud. Well done to Mary, who saw Espumanti’s potential early and bought her mother before Espumanti had fully proven herself.”
The Wilgerbosdrift breeder was thrilled and said: “I wasn’t worried when Sea Shadow raced clear of our filly. I knew Espumanti would get there. What I like about her is that when she’s been beaten only by the very best fillies around.”
Meanwhile Mike and Mary will be contemplating the future of Ilha Bela, who produced what appeared to be a below-par run in the Summer Cup. She crossed the line six lengths adrift of Yorker and Master Sabina.
Again, however, the formbook brings us closer to the truth. With last year’s Summer Cup result taken as a yardstick, Ilha Bela arguably ran pretty close to her best on a collateral line through Wagner, Knock on Wood and Whiteline Fever. She was impeccably turned out and had her ears pricked striding purposefully to the starting gates. A coat of shiny, silver grey proved her well-being.
Ilha Bela’s followers may argue that she ran almost four lengths below her capabilities on a line through her meeting with Master Sabina in a Conditions race on 23 October. But they will have to concede that Master Sabina was on the comeback trial after a rest. He’s clearly made terrific improvement in the weeks that have passed since.
Their relation in blood aside, Ilha Bela’s physical resemblance to Ilha Da Vitoria placed her precariously in the spotlight of comparison with her dam. The restless pundits who sought to compare them on a scale of ability can now focus their attention elsewhere. We can safely accept that Ilha Bela is not as good as her illustrious dam, who destroyed her male rivals in the Summer Cup seven years ago.
The grey Ilha Bela (easy to spot), came up against some fast-improving young male runners and wasn’t disgraced in the Summer Cup. Geoff Woodruff’s Yorker (left), took first prize.
In saying that, Ilha Bela was far from disgraced in defeat. In due course she, too, will be a marvellous addition to the paddocks of Wilgerbosdrift. Ilha Bela finished within a respectable margin behind a quartet of top quality, up-and-coming younger male runners from Geoff Woodruff’s bang-in-form yard. She was just two lengths off this year’s equally formidable SA Derby winner and multiple Graded-placed Wylie Hall and only a short-head behind last year’s Cup winner Wagner – he was over seven lengths ahead of her last year and held her by only a whisker this time.
Indeed, Ilha Bela’s connections have every reason to be proud of their game little grey mare. She has given her many supporters a good series of thrills by putting her heart into her runs, and with her likeness to her freakishly talented dam bringing back some of this racing decade’s fondest memories.
On the subject of the unusually talented: Mike’s highly promising classic contender Whistle Stop’s rivalry with Sean Tarry’s equally exciting Willow Magic in the Gr2 Dingaans saw Tarry’s fleet-footed galloper at his brilliant best. When the chips were down, Willow Magic shook himself loose from Whistle Stop and the rest of the pack. He won by two lengths, his recent conqueror staying on in pursuit but not able to peg him back this time.
Anthony Delpech, knowing that he’d have to nurse a beast whose youthful clumsiness posed a potential obstacle at this competitive level, made a timeous move on Whistle Stop, who was 4,5kg worse off with Willow Magic on their last encounter. With his jock hard at work, Whistle Stop had managed to gather his big stride approaching the 400m-mark. Despite the swing in weights, he looked poised to draw his free-running rival into a battle of size and presence in which he didn’t expect to face the resistance he was about to get.
From the corner of his eye, Willow Magic’s jockey Piere Strydom, who had been pulled to the front against his will by his mount’s abundance of speed, saw Whistle Stop looming up powerfully to initiate the showdown. As it happened Strydom had sensed during the early stages of the race that Willow Magic was striding better than ever before. He decided to move with trust and pressed his chestnut for what had to be an immediate change of gears. Willow Magic gave the affirmative in a show of steely reserve. He turned up the heat on queue, pinched two lengths on his leggy challenger and sustained his effort in composed fashion.
With its long tradition of uncovering authentic talent in every new generation of three-year-olds , the Dingaans once again proved to be a connoisseur’s horse race –keenly contested by a generous sampling of the industry’s most promising equine celebrity hopefuls.
There is enough now to suggest that Willow Magic and Whistle Stop are the pair of males most likely to dominate the ranks of three-year-old this term, but it won’t be easy to predict which one will be able to claim undisputed leadership at the season’s end.
Sean described Willow Magic as “a bomb, the real deal,” statements which Mike will agree with because he knows a top horse when he sees one. If Mike was put on the spot, however, he’d have similarly complimentary accolades for Whistle Stop.
From the enthralling spectacle that was the Dingaans it is evident that we’re dealing with two markedly different runners. Willow Magic looks likely to develop into a miler of big repute. If he can consistently produce the turn of foot he displayed on Saturday, he’d be very hard to beat up to 1600m, but may have his limitations over more ground.
Whistle Stop, in turn, gives the impression that he will be best suited by races beyond 1600m. He looks to possess top staying potential and is the type of horse who’ll have races like the Summer Cup or the J&B Met on his agenda not too far into his career.
Whether Whistle Stop will remain in South Africa long enough a crack at our richest races will depend on the plans Mike and Sheikh Hamdan will be mapping out for him in the next few weeks. Mike has not made up his mind about the Cape Guineas – perhaps the Cape Derby will be a better option. There also exists a possibility that Whistle Stop may pass it all by to be booked on the first available plane to Dubai.
At the weekend staunch supporters on respective sides claimed the Kingdom of the Three-Year-Old. Some keen debates around the issue arose in racing’s social circles. The feeling among fans of Willow Magic is that Sean’s ace was a notch below his best and had suffered a poor ride when Whistle Stop nabbed him near the finish of the Graham Beck Stakes.
Most of the Whistle Stop groupies believe their hero is a big-headed baby who was barely out of his nappies when lowering Willow Magic’s colours. To them, inexperience alone cost him a victory in the Dingaans.
Dingaans photo finish: The speedball Willow Magic (1), scooted away from big-striding Whistle Stop (4)
One wily pundit chirped: “Let me explain what happened. Horses are like people. Whistle Stop knows he is very good and I think his arrogance cost him a win in the Dingaans. He stormed up to Willow Magic thinking that intimidation alone would scare his rival into quick submission, but the Tarry runner scooted away before the big guy got a chance to knock him into shape.
“Just look carefully at the replay of the race, look at it like you’d look at a race in which two human athletes are trying to outwit each other. Whistle Stop is so full of himself I think his heart skipped a few beats when Willow Magic answered his fire with fire. Whistle Stop was surprised that the other horse had the cheek to stand up to him. He was so surprised that he lost his concentration and with that he also lost his winning momentum. He was posing over the last 100m, he seemed to be looking on in disbelief. But Whistle Stop is a clever horse, he will learn from this experience and he’ll take things seriously next time!”
Exciting horses never fail to raise lively interest, debate and a variety of opinions charged with emotion. This is what makes horseracing unique and wonderfully entertaining. Let’s hope there will be a next time for Whistle Stop and Willow Magic. There are points to prove and scores to settle!