SINGAPORE- It was no surprise when Better Life lived up to her billing as the best horse in Sunday's Group 1 Emirates Singapore Derby in Race 10, romping home by 1¼ lengths in the $1.15 million classic for four-year-olds.
But it came as a shock when the mare's trainer, Hideyuki Takaoka, sadly revealed that the Derby could well be the last race in her career.
Said the soft-spoken Takaoka: "Even before the race, the owners and I discussed to send her to Australia for breeding.
"I'm sad, but the owners don't want her to have too many races before breeding. She's a good mare with a good pedigree."
Then, with a soft laugh, he added: "I hope the owners can change their minds and maybe she can have one or two more runs before going to Australia."
Asked about Better Life's breeding plans, K Kusumoto of Suzuka Racing Stable, which owns the champion mare, would only say "secret".
But, if she does hang around for a while, she won't be defending her Longines Singapore Gold Cup title in November as Takaoka said the Group 1 race is "a bit tough for her under the handicap conditions".
Better Life won the 2,200m classic with 55.5kg last year. A run earlier, the chestnut mare by runaway Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones captured the Group 1 Panasonic Kranji Mile. She was voted Champion Miler and Champion Stayer for last season.
After resuming from a five-month rest, Better Life ran a third first-up on April 7 before winning the Group 2 Queen Elizabeth II Cup on April 26.
A seventh in the International Group 1 $3 million Singapore Airlines International Cup followed and then came Sunday's Derby, which certain quarters thought was a bit long for the mare to be fighting fit for the 2,000m race without a lead-up race or a barrier trial.
But Takaoka, a master in training stayers, winning the Singapore Gold Cup on three other occasions with his retired champion El Dorado as well as the 2009 Derby with another mare, Jolie's Shinju, knew exactly what he was doing.
"I believe she was 100 per cent. It's my style," he said, with a smile.
"We did everything well from the SIA Cup. I wasn't concerned about the two months. She's just a filly. I didn't want to press her hard to the Derby.
"What can I say? She's a great horse. She's a very good mare. I'm very happy.
"Racing from the 800m to the 500m, I was just worried that she would get checked on the rails. The jockey rode a very good race."
English Derby-winning Alan Munro put Better Life in a perfect spot on Sunday after jumping from barrier 2.
Passing the grandstand for the first time, his mount was a handy fifth behind speedster Goodpack, who swooped down from his wide berth to lead from El Milagro, Musketeer and Greenstone.
Goodpack was about a length in front of Musketeer and El Milagro turning into the backstraight. A length away came Greenstone and Better Life. Then came Raziyya Of Sydney, Darien Gap and Wild Geese. At the midway stage, Goodpack was two lengths clear of Musketeer, with a ½-length to El Milagro. A couple of horses wide a length behind was Greenstone. Munro stuck on to his inside just beside the rails.
Goodpack came back to the field as they swung for home. Musketeer, also trained by Takaoka, went up to the leader at the 400m but the gap between them was so wide that Munro deftly peeled himself off the rails to go through the big split.
El Milagro and Greenstone couldn't go any faster. From behind, Wild Geese loomed up menacingly.
Better Life popped ahead shortly after the 300m but Wild Geese dived at him to range almost level. The two horses kicked ahead, with Raziyya Of Sydney coming with a late run on the outside. Tropaios also came into the picture.
Wild Geese fought hard but found that he lacked the miles in his legs in his first attempt over 2,000m. After all, it was only his fifth Kranji start.
Being the highest-rated contender and carrying 1.5kg lighter than her male rivals under the set-weights conditions, Better Life started to pull ahead under Munro's hard riding to beat Wild Geese easily.
Tropaios, who drew the widest barrier, finished third, 2½ lengths behind and just a shorthead in front of Raziyya Of Sydney, the only other mare in the 15-horse field.
Trainer Stephen Gray's The Great Grey was withdrawn on veterinary advice behind the barrier after the Derby's only grey horse "flipped over backwards" after being reshod.
"Yeah, huge relief," said Munro, on returning to the scales.
"The race went well. I had a tense moment round the 600m because I wanted to sit one deep but Vorster (Greenstone) pushed me on the rails.
"I was lucky because El Milagro rolled off a bit and the tense moment came when he rolled back but, you know, I got a good split. She got there and she eased a little bit but, when I hit her, she went, you know. She's the best horse in the race."
But what was it like when Manoel Nunes brought Wild Geese up to challenge him hard?
"Yeah, I could hear Manoel shouting. He shouts a lot, you know, that guy. He was a threat but we had to fight. She wasn't really 100 per cent but she was good enough with her class."
Said Nunes: "When I pulled beside her, I said 'well, we'll go off from here' but she was too good and beat me."