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Fitzsimmons is not in a hurry

All eyes are on first-time champion trainer, but Australian feels no pressure in 2nd year

Tim Fitzsimmons has not set his hopes too high for his duo of Gold Star and Illustrious in the $110,000 Group 3 Merlion Trophy (1,200m) on Saturday.

Both are coming back from a break for the reigning Singapore champion trainer.

From the field of 12 horses, only Lim’s Kosciuszko, the likely favourite, is in the same boat. The others have all had at least one run under the belt this term, with Ocean Crossing being the only winner.

Against such a medley bunch, a first-up coup would, however, not be beyond the realms of possibility.

But the Australian is still not holding his breath.

Gold Star is returning from a mandatory three-month bleeding ban, while Illustrious returned lame and as a roarer after his last start on Oct 2.

Even if both seem to have put their setbacks behind, comeback races are more like learning to walk before you run.

“They both had a long break, and have come back good,” said Fitzsimmons.

“I had long planned to give Gold Star his first run back in the Merlion Trophy, but not Illustrious.

“There was no other race for Illustrious until the end of the month, a Class 2 race over 1,200m. So I thought I might as well run him, too.

“I’m happy with their prep. Gold Star trialled good the other day (Jan 26).”

That barrier trial felt like a Merlion Trophy dress rehearsal, given that six of the seven triallers figure in the season’s first feature race of the year.

Lim’s Kosciuszko took out the trial from Rocket Star, Celavi, Ocean Crossing, Gold Star and Surpass Natural. Only Hero, who finished a clear last, is not in the line-up of the Polytrack feature.

On the same day, in the next trial, Illustrious loomed on the outside, but was swamped late to finish fifth behind Lord Justice.

“I don’t have any long-term plan for either, just take it day by day,” said Fitzsimmons.

“I hope they can both put in a good run. We’ll have a better idea where they stand as we go along.”

Cliff Brown’s former assistant trainer knows only too well not to pre-judge any horse, whether it is a favourite or a long shot.

In 2022, he claimed a well-deserved first title at only his fourth season after Donna Logan lost ground late.

Some had even pre-written a fairytale ending for him in the Group 1 Singapore Gold Cup (2,000m) at the penultimate meeting, but things did not go to script.

He went into the time-honoured classic with a powerful quartet, headed by Mr Black Back and Relentless. But they were upstaged by the Ricardo Le Grange-trained Hongkong Great. His less-fancied Cyclone (third) and Trumpy (fourth) fared the best.

The last 2022 meeting on Nov 26 was more anti-climactic. None of his big team of 14 runners, most of whom well supported, scored, although what mattered more was that he was home in the title race.

They say it is more difficult to stay on top than to get there.

Fitzsimmons has thus far scored three times in four 2023 meetings, which is not a bad haul. But perhaps a tad short of the searing pace expected of champions from the get-go.

“I’ve had a reasonable start with 20 runners and three winners,” he said.

“I was unlucky with Born To Win and Popeyethesailorman. With more luck, they could have won and I would have been on five winners, but that is the game of horse racing.

“I’ve got 10 runners this week, and 17 next week. So things are slowly picking up.”

Fans are also trying not to read too much into the stable’s rising star Golden Monkey’s blip at his first-up run on Jan 23 when he beat only two home.

Fitzsimmons, for one, has already put a line through that resounding defeat from the three-time winner by Star Turn.

“He was four to five wide with no cover over 1,200m on the long course. It was also a leader’s track that day,” he said.

“It’s a ‘forget-run’.”