It felt like the end of an era at Sha Tin on Sunday as some decorated veterans passed the baton to the emerging talents at the final Group One meeting of 2020-21.
The Tony Cruz-trained Exultant has been a warhorse across four seasons in Hong Kong, with five Group Ones victories among his 11 wins and 16 placings from 32 starts.
The reigning Horse of the Year was gallant again in the Champions & Chater Cup but the old boy just can’t match motors with the young bucks when it matters any more.
He’s still been as consistent as ever – the only time he’s missed a placing from seven runs this campaign was when the four Japanese raiders beat him home in the QE II Cup – but it seems like winning is now a bridge too far.
On Sunday, the HK$1.2 million in prize money Exultant earned for running third took him to HK$83,491,900 – passing Viva Pataca’s mark of HK$83,197,500 and placing him second all-time, behind only Beauty Generation (HK$106,233,750).
He’s been an incredible horse for connections, in particular jockey Zac Purton, who was lucky enough to be the regular rider for both Exultant and Beauty Generation.
The four-time champion knows Exultant better than anyone – he’s been aboard in 25 of his 32 races – and can see the writing on the wall.
“He’s honest, he gives everything he can but the poor guy has had so many tough runs in his career – all those mid-race moves and tough battles that he’s been in,” said Purton, who gave Exultant an extra pat after dismounting on Sunday.
“He’s fought like a lion for so many seasons now that eventually it catches up with them. It’s just the way racing and life works.
“He’s at that stage now where he’s worn out and the horses coming through have got a little bit more juice left in them.
“But he’s been a terrific horse for me, I’ve really enjoyed the journey with him and sadly, it was always going to come to an end one day but he went down fighting.”
Connections are yet call it officially, but Sunday was likely to be the last start of Exultant’s superb career.
Given all that he’s done, you would hope the rising eight-year-old could find a home at Living Legends in Australia or back where he was bred in Ireland and frolic around in a lush paddock.
To find the cautionary tale for going on a season too long, you only have to look at Exultant’s stablemate Time Warp.
The three-time Group One winner has taken up his customary front-running position in all eight of his starts this preparation with just two fifths and HK$518,500 in prize money to his credit. He was beaten by 21 and three-quarter lengths on Sunday.
Thankfully, it has been confirmed that Time Warp has run his last race and can now enjoy retirement – he’s certainly earned it.
There has been a serious exodus of high-end horses this season with the likes of Beauty Generation, Time Warp and top sprinter Beat The Clock as confirmed retirements while there are question marks over the futures of Exultant and Waikuku. There are 22 Group One wins between those five stars.
It’s part of the reason there has been a severe lack of depth at the top level, with Golden Sixty forced to do most of the heavy lifting.
But things are starting to look up so hopefully Francis Lui Kin-wai’s superstar won’t be the lone shining light next season.
The three-year-olds look really promising, headlined by Courier Wonder, who now has to be considered one of the leading chances for December’s Hong Kong Sprint after extending his unbeaten run to five in the Group Three Sha Tin Vase.
Killer Bee and Fantastic Treasure have all the tools to be top-class horses and should both be prominent when the four-year-old series kicks off with the Classic Mile in January.
There have also been a handful of super-impressive debut winners in the last fortnight with Drops Of God, Master Eight and Toronado Phantom all looking to have significant upside.
There are still questions about the overall quality of this season’s batch of four-year-olds but Panfield gave it a huge lift with his shock win in the Champions & Chater Cup, much like Wellington did by claiming the Chairman’s Sprint Prize. Hopefully they can become mainstays at the top level for years to come.
There is no doubt this has been a season of transition for Hong Kong’s elite gallopers but, as we saw on Sunday, there are reasons for optimism.