Trainer Alec Laird celebrated the blissful successful culmination of a stressful few weeks and the dawn of a likely new era in his own career, as he introduced a shining star to the horseracing world courtesy of a runaway victory in Saturday’s R2,5 million Gr1 J&B Met by his cracking Ideal World filly Smart Call.
An injury to regular jockey Weichong Marwing led to the Laird yard and Smart Call connections facing a week of tough decisions to find a suitable replacement rider.
And after negotiations fell flat with a trio of international riders, it was left to a 26 year old local lad who enjoys pap and braaivleis, washed down with a crème soda nogal, to steer the progressive galloper home – and even relish the rare Gr1 luxury of a glance back at his stunned opponents in the final stages of one of our great races.
In the face of Justin Snaith’s world record eight winner rout, it was always going to take a massive performance in the feature to dominate the headlines on a sunny windswept afternoon – and the Mauritzfontein bred filly came to the party in grand fashion to register a sensational win in the black and yellow silks, worn by the 3yo superstar Horse Chestnut in 1999.
Trainer Alec Laird saddled international superstar London News to win the Met in 1997, and having another potential globetrotter on his hands must be music to the ears of the veteran horseman.
The 2016 Met glory story had it opening chapter a few years ago when the Grande Dame of SA horseracing, the late Bridget Oppenheimer, delivered a young daughter of Kingmambo stallion Ideal World to Alec Laird’s yard.
And the tale reached a peak just seven hours prior to the race when JP van der Merwe stepped off the direct flight from Joburg and checked his smart phone – to feel the thrill of knowing that he had been confirmed as the jockey.
“Mr Laird and I spoke during the week. I have ridden her in work and know her as a decent filly. I kept refreshing the website to check who had been confirmed for the ride. Just after 09h00 on Saturday I checked again after we had landed. What a thrill – and yes, I only really had seven odd hours to think about it,” he laughed modestly.
With the Met field reduced to 14 runners, and Smart Call the only rose in a bunch of serious Gr1 thorns, she was easy to back at 10-1.
And after a clean race that saw Legislate lead Helderberg Blue for home, it was left to the Paddock Stakes winner to match the L’Ormarins Queen’s’ Plate crackerjack – but it was no contest
Smart Call left Sean Tarry’s race favourite Legal Eagle for dead, as she drew off and won going away by 3,50 length in a time of 123,17 secs.
Despite glancing behind in disbelief, Van Der Merwe never stopped riding all the way to the lollipop – as the winner drifted out marginally in the process of his enthusiastic, albeit largely unnecessary, urgings.
Legal Eagle was given every chance, but was beaten fairly and squarely – and it was not to be the Avontuur bred star’s day.
Captain America came out of the pack to grab third another length away, ahead of the gallant Glen Kotzen longshot Light The Lights, who ran his heart out to secure fourth.
Legislate ran a forward race and was always thereabouts – but faded inside the 350m and ran sixth, 6,20 lengths off the serious action.
Last year’s winner Futura ran eighth, a further two lengths behind – and jockey Bernard Fayd’herbe said afterwards that he had no excuses – even if he did appear to check when making his run from behind King Of Pain.
Justin Snaith admitted later that he would have traded his eight winners for the Met – but he will have to come back in twelve months to show that he can train a Met winner.
Sansui Summer Cup winner Master Sabina ran trailed off last in a disappointing showing – although his owner Mike De Broglio didn’t exactly waste his time jetting in from the USA, leading in two minor race winners.
Smart Call joins an illustrious modern era honour roll of female winners of this great race, that includes the likes of Igugu, River Jetez, Imperious Sue, Empress Club, Olympic Duel, and a half century back to Renounce.
Van Der Merwe comfirmed that everything had gone perfectly and that Smart Call had come out of the stalls well.
“I sat behind Anton Marcus on the favourite and at the 300m she showed what she was made of,” he said.
Trainer Alec Laird was filled with emotion and his face reflected the strain of the three months of careful planning that had gone into the big win.
“What a wonderful moment. I was expecting her to do well but this was beyond our expectations. And what a top ride by JP – he was in the right place behind the favourite – she was travelling with her head up – but when she accelerated there was nothing coming at her. She is very special and was sent to me by Jess’s late grandmother. Unbelievable stuff,” he said.
Mauritzfontein’s Jessica Slack was also naturally elated and her usual Gr1 animated self – can we blame her!
“This is the best – it doesn’t feel real. I really had no idea how good she was. JP is a superstar,” she said.
Smart Call took her earnings to R3 416 125 at her seventh win with 6 places from only 16 starts.
A classic Mauritzfontein product, Smart Call is a daughter of Ideal World out of the 1999 Met winner Horse Chestnut’s unraced daughter, Good Judgement – a half-sister to Vodacom Durban July winner, Greys Inn, who sired runner-up Legal Eagle.
A stakes winning son of breed-shaping sire Kingmambo,who was euthenised at age 26 at Lane’s End recently, and champion racemare Banks Hill, Ideal World is closely related to successful sires Dansili, Cacique and Champs Elysees – the family of Gr1 Qipco 2000 Guineas Gr1 Tattersalls Irish 2000 Guineas winner, Gleneagles.
In the aftermath of a terrific day, spare a thought for top jockey Weichong Marwing, who had been aboard Smart Call in all of her six wins.
He was replaced on CTS Million Dollar winner Illuminator a week earlier – and then had to watch another historic winner from the grandstand on Saturday.
The Breeders Cup invitation earned after Smart Call’s Paddock Stakes victory is looking more of an exciting reality every day!
And the quote of the day came from tenth race winning conditioner, Andre Nel: “It feels great to have a winner on Snaith Day.”
Gr1 J&B Met (SAf-Gr1)
Kenilworth, South Africa, January 30, R2.5 million, 2000m, turf, good, 2.03.17
1 – SMART CALL (SAF), 57.0, b f 4, Ideal World (USA) – Good Judgement (USA) by Horse Chestnut (SAF). Owner Mauritzfontein (Pty) Ltd (Nom: Miss J B Slack); Breeder Mauritzfontein Stud; trainer AG Laird; jockey JP vd Merwe
2 – Legal Eagle (SAF), 59.5, b g 4, Greys Inn (USA) – Young Sensation (SAF) by National Emblem (SAF)
3 – Captain America (SAF), 60.0, b g 5, Captain Al (SAF) – Requista (SAF) by Fort Wood (USA)
Margins: 3.50, 1.00, 0.30