By Sarah Whitelaw
Frontrunning tactics helped 15-1 shot Hill Fifty Four cause something of an upset in the J&B Met (SA-f-I) Feb. 1 at Kenilworth. Runner-up last year in this event, the 5-year-old gelding conquered a high-class field to take home the R2.5 million purse ($224,740 in United States funds) in Cape Town's most famous and fashionable horse race.
Betting for the 2,000-meter (about 1 1/4-mile) race was dominated by Master Of My Fate, who had won his last six races, and recent L'Ormarins Queen's Plate (SAf-I) one-two finishers Capetown Noir and Jackson.
Master Of My Fate, making his first start in a group I contest, was sent out a 5-2 shot ahead of Jackson (4-1) and Capetown Noir (6-1). These top three dominated the betting, with the next best horse in the market being 11-1 shot King of Pain, who had a rough trip in the Queen's Plate.
Hill Fifty Four, who had finished second to 80-1 longshot Martial Eagle in the 2013 J&B Met, was widely overlooked in the early market. The gelding was coming into the Met off a fourth place finish behind Master Of My Fate in the Glorious Goodwood Peninsula Handicap (SAf-II) Jan. 11 at Kenilworth, and faced his conqueror on slightly better weight terms in the big race.
Partnered with champion jockey Anton Marcus, Hill Fifty Four jumped out quickly as the 18 horse field was dispatched before a large and elegantly attired crowd.
Marcus sent his mount to the front and the pair set a steady gallop through the early stages, leading No Worries and Royal Zulu Warrior, while more fancied contenders Capetown Noir and Master Of My Fate both raced off the pace. Jackson raced third last and never looked like getting into contention.
Going into the bend, Hill Fifty Four continued to lead, travelling strongly under Marcus, with the likes of No Worries, Punta Arenas and Royal Zulu Warrior racing just off of him. Master Of My Fate suffered a torrid trip, and got cut into during the running of the race.
Turning for home, Hill Fifty Four ran on strongly and was bought to the inside, well off the main group of horses. 2013 Sansui Summer Cup (SAf-I) winner Yorker began a menacing-looking run up the inside rail, while other challenges came from Whiteline Fever and 25-1 longshot Punta Arenas.
Despite having hung badly and running apart from the main group, Hill Fifty Four kicked on well in the closing stages to register a 1 3/4-length win over Yorker, with Punta Arenas another a neck away in third place, ahead of Whiteline Fever and Master Of My Fate. Just five lengths covered the first 12 finishers home, in a race where the time was set at 2:03.93.
Marcus was understandably ecstatic after the race. When asked if the plan had always been to go to the front, he replied, "I found there were only a few horses in the first quadrant likely to lead. And, although I would have been happy to get a lead, I was fine with making the running."
However, when questioned when he knew when he had the race in the bag, Marcus admitted," I only knew when I crossed the line!"
In winning the Met, Hill Fifty Four gave leading owners Markus and Ingrid Jooste their first ever triumph in the Cape's premier race. The Joostes had previously finished second in the prestigious event four times, and Markus was clearly delighted to claim the trophy at last. The event was a great triumph for Markus and Ingrid Jooste, who owned the winner outright, and were also partners in the runner-p Yorker, and fourth-place finisher Whiteline Fever.
Hill Fifty Four, who won the first group I event of his career, also provided trainer Vaughan Marshall with his second win in the race. Marshall saddled La Fabulous to victory back in 1996.
The conditioner was emotional in victory, saying, "To train this horse to win the Met is very special, having trained his sire to win the Guineas. The race went according to plan—although I was annoyed by people's comments about his pre-race gallop, which I thought was fantastic."
It was also a second win for jockey Marcus, who partnered Horse of the Year Empress Club to victory in 1993.
Hill Fifty Four, who had previously won the group II Peninsula Handicap and Algoa Cup (SAf-III), is a son of five-time champion sire Captain Al, whose 43 stakes winners include seven group I winners.
Bred by Klawervlei Stud, Hill Fifty Four has now won seven races from 19 outings. His dam, Sports Dance, by Sportsworld, is a winning half-sister to stakes-winning stayer Seven Hero's, while his third dam, Seven Stars, won the 1987 SA Oaks (SAF-II).
Offspring of former Horse of the Year Dynasty dominated the day's two other top-level races.
Legislate sprang a 28-1 shock when accounting for 7-10 favourite Captain America in the Investec Cape Derby (SAf-I). The Justin Snaith-trained colt took his tally to two wins in seven outings when he showed off a sustained finish to get the better of Captain America and score a 1 1/4-length win in the 2,000-meter classic.
Luckless runner-up Captain America has now been second in both Cape classics, having previously run second to stablemate Elusive Gold in the Grand Parade Cape Guineas (SAf-I).
One of South Africa's best loved champions, Beach Beauty, landed the fourth group I win of her stellar career when scoring a convincing 1 1/4-length victory in the Klawervlei Majorca Stakes—a race for fillies and mares over 1,600 meters (about one mile).
Saddled by visiting trainer Dennis Drier, who also sent out beaten Met favourite Master Of My Fate, Beach Beauty seemed to hit a flat spot 500 meters out, but rallied strongly to mow down her opponents.
Last season's Equus champion older mare, the diminutive 6-year-old has now won 15 times for the Shanks Syndicate.
A horse hugely popular with the racing public, Beach Beauty was making it back-to-back group I wins, having won the Cape's premier event for fillies and mares, the Maine Chance Farms Paddock Stakes, in her previous outing.