By Michael Lee/Singapore Turf Club
Japanese-born trainer Hideyuki Takaoka knows all about big-race pressure. He’s won three Singapore Gold Cups and the Singapore 4-Year-Old Challenge Triple Crown, so it’s no surprise he is a picture of calm ahead of Singapore’s marquee weekend of racing.
Now based at Kranji Racecourse in Singapore, the trainer has runners in both feature races on Friday, May 18, and Sunday, May 20. His top filly Better Life—an Australian-bred daughter of American champion Smarty Jones —is stepping up to the more suitable trip of 1,600 meters (about one mile) in the Singapore Guineas on May 18, while his Gold Cup three-peat hero El Dorado is running in the $2.4 million Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sin-I) over 2,000 meters (about 1¼ miles) on May 20.
Takaoka is under no illusions about El Dorado’s odds of becoming the first local runner to capture the SIA Cup since Ouzo in 2000. Better Life’s odds in the Guineas are a great deal shorter, though the ominous shadow of four-time stakes winner Super Easy looms in the third leg of the Singapore 3-Year-Old Challenge.
Super Easy, a New Zealand-bred colt by Darci Brahma, is undefeated in nine starts as a 3-year-old in Singapore.
Still, Better Life stamped herself as something special in her debut win at 1,200 meters (about six furlongs) last October in Singapore. Her two subsequent wins over 1,400 meters (about seven furlongs) and narrow closing second in a 1,600-meter race convinced Takaoka the Singapore Guineas would be the main objective for her.
In preparation, Takaoka bypassed the first leg of the Three-Year-Old Challenge series—the 1,200-meter Singapore 3-Year-Old Sprint, and instead pressed the Suzuka Racing Stable-owned galloper toward the second leg, the Singapore 3-Year-Old Classic over 1,400 meters on April 22. Off a two-month layoff, she finished fourth, 2¼ lengths behind Super Easy.
"I knew I could not run her in the 1,200-meter race. Even the 1,400-meter race was too short, I thought," said Takaoka, who has built a reputation at Kranji as a conditioner of stayers like El Dorado and middle-distance performers like Triple Crown 4-year-old champion Jolie’s Shinju.
"She was probably too far off the lead in the 1,400-meter race anyway. She made up some ground…but she was left with too much to do in the end.
"I think we will have to settle her closer to the speed this time. From barrier No. 3, she should be able to race handier," he continued. "Besides, you can’t get too far back in such a strong field. You can’t give a horse like Super Easy too big a start. Over 1,600 meters, she will hopefully finish closer."
Under jockey Alan Munro May 15, the chestnut filly out of the Sunday Silence mare Quiet Life took off at three-quarter pace from the 1,000-meter marker on the Polytrack before working home in earnest to reel off the last 600 meters in :39.
"It was a very solid run. She came off that work very well and in good shape," said Takaoka. "Her preparation since her last run has gone smoothly. We’ve only made sure she maintained her condition and she certainly has improved from her last run."
Takaoka has left nothing to chance with Better Life, who is probably his best chance at securing his first win in a leg of the Singapore 3-Year-Old Challenge in his 10 years of training at Kranji. But he is also praying for a bit of divine intervention as well.
Though Better Life scored her second and third win by widening margins over 1,400 meters on a yielding track, Takaoka still believes the filly is at her best over the top of the ground.
"Even though she won on a yielding track, I hope it stops raining by Friday as I think firm ground is more suitable for her," said Takaoka.
"But I hope it starts raining again from Saturday to Sunday. That will be good for El Dorado as he likes it wet," he added.
Bred by Jananth Pty Ltd. in October 2008, Better Life was sold as a yearling at the 2010 Inglis Easter sale for $138,090. She has won three of five lifetime starts, all in Singapore, and has earned $101,519 to date.