Racing

All eyes will be on Katak

Unbeaten South African champ makes Kranji debut

So far, it has been a tremendous trip. A saga, really.

Would anyone have ventured to undertake such an odyssey for a horse?

Well, if you're head over heels in love with the Sport of Kings and your surname's Shirtliff, then you would take the risks as they come.

And, if the prize at the end of the rainbow is a tilt at the Singapore Gold Cup in November, then bring on the challenge.

So began "Operation Katak".

The mission was to get the five-time unbeaten South African racehorse to Singapore, where his primary target would be the$1 million Group 1 classic - and whatever else happens to come by along the way.

Since Jay Peg's win in the 2008 $3 million Singapore Airlines International Cup, Marsh Shirtliff, the prominent South African businessman and horse owner, had been longing to win another big race in Singapore.

In Katak, who is a five-year-old entire, Shirtliff reckoned he had the horse who could deliver the goods. But it was going to be a testing time for all involved.

Not so much the race on Nov 14. But getting Katak to our shores.

Because of the African Horse Sickness outbreak a decade ago, racing jurisdictions have been reluctant to allow horses from that continent into their stables.

Hence, the strictest quarantine rules have been put in place.

But the journey did begin.

"Unfortunately, it took us longer to get Katak here than we expected," said Shirtliff's son, Guy, who races horses at Kranji with trainer Ricardo Le Grange and has a one-third share in Katak. The other third belongs to his father's partner, Bryn Ressell.

"We thought quarantine would take nine months. But it took 12 months, including four months in Mauritius and three months in France.

"But since he reached Singapore, Ricardo Le Grange has been doing a fantastic job and Katak has been getting better and better with every gallop."

Katak was at the trials last Thursday and he finished second to Sing Our Song.

He goes over 1,200m in Race 10 on Saturday. Given the fact that his victories in South Africa had been from 1,600m to 2,400m, the sprint is not ideal. However, it will bring him along nicely.

"Ricardo has said that ideally, the horse might need another month or so to get fitter. But he's such a special horse and he hasn't lost any of his ability," said Guy.

"If he keeps improving, by the time the Queen Elizabeth II Cup comes along on Oct 16, he will be close to his best form."

For now, all eyes will be on Katak, who will race in Guy's pink-and-blue striped silks. They will be worn by the Frenchman, Marc Lerner.

Come Saturday, don't expect miracles from this lightweight entity. But, with his pedigree and the big heart he so obviously possesses, Katak will surely run a huge race.

HORSE RACING