There is little question that the 2013 renewal of the R600 000 Gr2 Emerald Cup boasts one of the best quality fields in the nine years since the Oppenheimer owned Hilti won the inaugural running of what is still Africa’s richest race on sand. While the duo of the brilliant Pylon and the rejuvenated Uncle Tommy are clearly superior, the contest is of such a nature that a case can be made for any runner that catches the personal fancy.
The 1450m charge of the sand stars at the Vaal has produced some great finishes in a relatively short history. The dramatic late storming run down the wide outside of St John Gray’s Alimony in 2008, is just one of those magic moments that are forever etched in the memories of those of us that love this game.
The son of Alami came from a hopeless position under Devin Habib, and in a breathtaking finish got up to beat Mark Khan on Renegade, with KZN challenger El Padrino in the hands of Robbie Hill back in third. It can be won by a forward racing sort too, and Saturday’s quality contest has an interesting mix of pacy and late charge types.
The 1000m run for home is a test of ability, strength of character and jockeyship, and jumping as they do on the fringe of the turn, the barrier draw is all important. As the legend Mike Azzie quipped earlier this month: “If you are drawn wide, you may as well stay at home.”
Heading the weights, the very same Mike Azzie’s Pylon is the highest ever rated horse on sand in our history, and has earned his A grade credentials with some superb performances.
He set the tone on Emerald Cup day last year when winning the NBT Vaal River Handicap run over 1800m beating Master Entertainer by 7,25 lengths. Since then he has won a further five races by an aggregate of 31,5 lengths.
The single biggest question mark against Pylon will be his ability to reproduce his peak ability over the shorter test of the Emerald Cup. The Van Vuuren owned son of Fort Wood will definitely not be stopping and will be charging home, when some of the others may be gasping for air and crying for the line in the final 200m.
Mike Azzie also saddles the Fort Wood mare Magic Smoke, who will be piloted by the master, Piere Strydom. She appears well held by Pylon, who has had her measure when they have met, but is a strong forward pacer who could get lucky. She is drawn 9, but has the initial gate speed to overcome that obstacle.
Pylon’s major challenge could be provided by the consistent Uncle Tommy. The son of Kahal has been reborn on the sand and has proven himself to be up with the best. He gets the services of the wily veteran Kevin Shea.
Interestingly, a glance back to February this year shows that Uncle Tommy was actually beaten by Pylon by 8,25 lengths over a mile. That was the last time they met. But the Adams runner appears to have gotten even stronger over the past six months.
Uncle Tommy ran a cracking second at his last start in the August Stakes and gave weight to all around him. He was beaten there by his stablemate Here Comes Billy and is now a kilo better off with the fast ascending star. And Here Comes Billy is one of the most exciting prospects around.
A winner of his last three starts in impressive style, he opened his sand account in the August Stakes in promising fashion and looks set to build on that from a decent draw here. He will be ridden again by S’manga Khumalo, who has formed a winning partnership with him.
Gavin Smith’s PE raider In A Rush has been labelled as something of a fortunate horse to make the final line up. He is a fellow who has never set foot in anger on the sand and is an unknown quantity. The former Eastern Cape Champion Juvenile was accepted for this race last year when still in the care of Joey Ramsden, but was withdrawn after rain delayed the race from Saturday to Thursday. In his favour, In A Rush is a longstriding 1400m specialist and has the unquestionable advantage of a 1 draw.
Ride The Wave
Storm Surf blotted his copybook somewhat in the August Stakes when running downfield and 7,25 lengths off the winner. He did however run to an effective 101 there and now meets Here Comes Billy on 8kgs better terms, which gives him a shout. His 15 draw does deter any form of genuine confidence though, and Anthony Delpech will have to call on every ounce of his experience to get him into the firing line.
Mike De Kock saddles the smart Western Winter filly Tayba, who has won her last four starts, of which three were on the sand. While Tayba faces the challenge of a 10 draw and comes out of female company into the hardknocking big league, she has the ability to turn it on and is ridden by Julius Mariba who has been aboard in all her four recent wins.
Sean Tarry has made a quiet start to the season and saddles three runners. The 7yo Across The Ice ran fourth in this race last year, but has a wide draw to overcome. He is 5kgs better off with Here Comes Billy for a seven length beating in the August Stakes.
The former ‘King Of The Sand’ Mr Tobin is now 8 years of age, and likely past his best. He ran poorly last time, but at his penultimate start ran Pylon to a length at level weights. He meets the Azzie galloper on six kilos better terms here, and thus must have a chance of causing a stir!
The best of Tarry’s trio on current form may be the Tiger Ridge gelding Tiger’s Retreat, who is in form and well and has won 4 of his last 8 starts. He comes off a two month rest and has his first run on the sand. In his favour, he is well drawn at 4 and is guided by one of the country’s top sand trainers.
Charles Laird’s Contador will be ridden by Anton Marcus, and the son of Var has proven quite enigmatic. The 2013 Gr1 Golden Horseshoe winner has shown that he can go with the best of them, and while there may be some support for the argument that he has not produced his turf form on the sand, we should not forget about his storming win in the 1000m Non Black Type Sophomore Sprint a year ago. He showed dazzling speed to beat Mogok’s Desire by 9,25 lengths there.
In Contador’s last start over the Vaal sand 1200m, he was comprehensively beaten by Here Comes Billy, who received 2,5kgs from him. The Marwing runner is now a half kilo better off, and it is difficult seeing Contador improving over the extra ground to reverse the placings.
Dominic Zaki saddles the classy entire, Jet Jamboree. Robbie Fradd rides him from a less than favourable 12 draw and he is well held by Pylon on their last clash. In that 1800m event, Piere Strydom looked to have Jet Jamboree cruising against the steel about 700m from home, but he fell in a hole when challenged by Pylon, who went away to beat him by 7 lengths. Jet Jamboree may be a different proposition over this shorter trip, but still has a mountain to climb.
Corne Spies’ War Horse has drawn terribly at 14 in his first try on the sand. The son of Victory Moon is a quality, albeit inconsistent, Gr1 winner and hails from a yard that produces plenty of winners on this surface.
He showed a glimmer of his better form when staying on smartly for a well beaten second behind Royal Zulu Warrior at Turffontein a fortnight ago. He beat SA Classic winner Love Struck by a narrow margin there, and he must be a factor if adapting to the ground.
The Damage Is Done mare Shattered Image races in the famous silks of the late Wally Brits, which were carried to victory in this race by Phunyuka in 2009 under Guillermo Figueroa. Shattered Image is one of three members of the fairer sex and is something of a course and distance specialist, who has won her last two starts on the trot.
Everything points to a great race and a thrilling contest. The sentimentalists may be leaning towards Pylon. And with good reason too. With his welterweight and running over a distance short of his best, a victory would elevate him to equine hero status. And with the industry hardly acknowledging sand achievement, with no Equus category, he can only do his talking on the track.
And his trainer is one of the great strategists and competitors in the modern game. Uncle Tommy and Here Comes Billy will both be in the firefight. Then we also cannot discount the likes of Tayba and In A Rush. It should go all the way down to the wire.