Ballygallon-Bred Exultant Still Delivering in Hong Kong


Sunday's Standard Chartered Champions and Chater Cup (2400m) at Sha Tin Racecourse is the last of 12 Group 1 events on the annual racing calendar in Hong Kong, one that has been significantly impacted first by social unrest in the region and more recently–and currently–by the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, Exultant (Ire) (Teofilo {Ire}) is emblematic of racing in the Special Administrative Region–a racehorse possessed of an iron constitution, showing up with his 'A' game time and again. One that can deliver his best even when the deck is stacked against him, an animal that can put his rivals to the sword and simply outfight them.

Exultant, the defending champion, will try to give legendary trainer Tony Cruz his seventh Champions and Chater Cup in the last eight years Sunday afternoon. Exultant was bred by Co. Kilkenny-based Ballygallon Stud, whose owner Belinda Strudwick is hard-pressed to contain her pride where it comes to the horse formerly known as Irishcorrespondent.

“To have him flying the flag internationally for a farm like ours, it's amazing and it's a huge privilege to have bred a horse like that,” Strudwick said. “When you get a horse that can run so consistently well at that level, it doesn't matter that we are a small operation. It's what we're all trying to do–to get them to that level. It is so, so difficult. When a horse can go on and carry the flag like he's done for us, it really is a huge boost, not only for myself, but for all the staff here. Everybody gets such a thrill.”

A Family Better Than Two Decades In the Making…

Strudwick acquired Exultant's third dam Jumilla (El Gran Senor) for $370,000 in foal to Woodman at the 1998 Keeneland November Sale. Charlie Gordon-Watson signed the winning ticket on behalf of Ballygallon.

“Charlie said she was a very, very attractive, correct mare,” Strudwick said. “We decided we would buy her. I was delighted with her, she had a lovely pedigree and we were very happy to have her.”

Jumilla was bred to Rainbow Quest in her first year at stud, producing the useful Desert Quest (Ire) and dropped the latter's full sister Crystal Gaze (Ire) in 2001.

“We had Crystal Gaze in training in Newmarket with Luca Cumani and we felt she had a lot of ability, but we never got her to the track, which is a bit sad. But I'm really glad we stuck with the family.”

Crystal Gaze became something of an anchor for the Ballygallon broodmare band, as her sons Spirit Quartz (Ire) (Invincible Spirit {Ire}) and Caspian Prince (Ire) (Dylan Thomas {Ire}) won a combined 28 races (six stakes and three group events) from better than 170 starts and earned a combined $1.8 million. Despite the success, it wasn't exactly how Strudwick mapped things out.

“She's a bit of a strange one, because with her pedigree, you would of thought her to produce middle distance,” she said, referring to Crystal Gaze. “Well, Spirit Quartz–you could forgive that one, because Invincibles can just about get anything, but obviously he does tend to produce more speed. It's almost that the mare could just reproduce speed. When we bred her to Dylan Thomas, we thought we might get a nice middle-distance horse, instead we got a five-furlong flying machine. Obviously, somewhere in there, there are some very strong speed genes which seem to dominate her offspring. This is the fun of breeding–you never really know what you're going to get. We think we know what we're doing and what mares are going to produce, but we really don't.”

Crystal Gaze's second foal was Contrary (Ire), who also made limited racetrack appearances, but was fortuitously retained by Ballygallon.

“Contrary is a very attractive Mark of Esteem (Ire). When she won a maiden in France, she won so well and then unfortunately she suffered a tendon injury on the gallops. We were going to go for a stakes race for her second career run in France. We felt she had sufficient enough ability that we wanted to bring her back to the farm to breed from her.”

A (Future) Star Is Born…

Contrary foaled a Teofilo colt Mar. 24, 2014, and Strudwick said he grew up the right way, his upbringing uneventful. But, as frequently happens in this business, things weren't exactly straight-forward as his career as a racehorse loomed.

“He went into pre-training at the Curragh and he was always a very athletic colt and we liked the look of him,” Strudwick said. “He was a beautiful, easy-moving horse. He was sent to France, but unfortunately somewhere along the way, he picked up a virus.

She continued, “Having hoped that he would have a 2-year-old career–and if it wasn't for the virus, I'm sure he would have run as a 2-year-old–we brought him back and we were going to send him straight to Mick Halford's yard, but he was just not in good enough shape to go straight into training here. We kept him on the farm, got him into shape after a substantial amount of time back here recuperating. We went about putting him back into work when we thought he was ready–we trained him on the farm until we were happy with him physically again.”

Irishcorrespondent returned 6-1 when taking out a Leopardstown maiden on debut in April 2017 and defeated future Australian Group 1 winner Homesman (War Front) in a Curragh conditions about five weeks later. From there, it was on to the G1 Irish 2000 Guineas and a clash with the likes of Churchill (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) and Thunder Snow (Ire) (Helmet {Aus}), but Irishcorrespondent also had to confront another formidable foe–namely Mother Nature (video, see below).

“It was a huge ask. And I remember the heavens opened here– it rained and rained and rained,” Strudwick remembered. “The ground didn't suit him. He was up against two very good horses in Churchill and Thunder Snow and maybe they could have run better in better conditions as well. Something we did know for certain is that Irishcorrespondent would have benefitted from better ground that day.”


WATCH: Exultant (ex Irishcorrespondent) finishes 3rd in the 2017 Irish 2000 Guineas


Calling Hong Kong…

A meritorious third, beaten seven lengths, in the Guineas, Irishcorrespondent pressed on to the G3 Hampton Court S. at Royal Ascot and though he could do no better than fifth to Benbatl (GB) (Dubawi {Ire}), some deal-making was done pre-race.

“We were in the paddock at Royal Ascot and I met John McCormack and John expressed an interest in him them,” Strudwick recollected. “I'd already had a fair amount of interest from various different people before we went to Ascot. John was pretty certain that this was a horse he wanted to buy. I run a small operation here and the offer was substantial and we sat down and decided that to turn away offers like that, obviously that pays a lot of bills. We would have loved to have kept him and see what he could have done here and possibly traveling a bit around Europe, but we felt that it was probably the right time to sell him.”

Not every horse, particularly those sourced in Europe, acclimatises to Hong Kong, but Exultant jumped right in. Third as the favourite in the 2018 BMW Hong Kong Derby, he won the G3 Queen Mother Memorial Cup H. in his first start at a mile and a half and was second to the mercurial 'TDN Rising Star' Pakistan Star (Ger) (Shamardal) in that year's Champions and Chater Cup. But the best was yet to come. Showing the grit and determination that have become his trademark, Exultant defeated future G1 Cox Plate victress and Japanese Horse of the Year Lys Gracieux (Jpn) (Heart's Cry {Ire}) in the 2018 G1 Longines Hong Kong Vase, becoming just the third locally based galloper to win the race. Though he couldn't overcome a tough trip from gate 14 in defence of his title last December, he won this year's G3 Centenary Vase H. (1800m) while giving 20 pounds to the runner-up, the G2 Jockey Club Cup (2000m) with a five-pound penalty and the G1 FWD QE II Cup (2000m) Apr. 26 (see below), sustaining an 1100-metre run in typically hard-nosed fashion.

“We always felt he was a horse that would likely thrive in Hong Kong and he certainly seems to have done that,” Strudwick said. “Hong Kong might not suit every individual, but it certainly seems to have handled it very well. And the horse just seems to have a will to win.”


WATCH: Exultant toughs it out in the FWD QE II Cup


A Good Problem to Have…

Thoroughbred breeding is always about asset appreciation and within that context, Strudwick has some decisions to make going forward as regards her investment in Exultant's family. She has already taken some money off the table when selling Exultant's half-sister Chilli Spice (Ire) (Manduro {Ger}) for €100,000 in foal to none other than Teofilo at Goffs November last fall. Chilli Spice reportedly produced a filly this winter.

As for the mare's younger produce: “She's got a beautiful Sea the Stars (Ire) filly foal this year and we have a Churchill (Ire) filly yearling. We've got a little more commercial over the last few years, so I have to decide, 'Do I sell the Churchill filly?' which would be a difficult decision, because I feel like I should keep her. She's very athletic and we see a lot of Exultant in this filly in the way she moves. She does everything effortlessly in the paddock, so I'm inclined to think at this stage that we will retain her and maybe with the Sea the Stars, perhaps we'll be selling her. The mare herself is covered by Blue Point (Ire), so we're waiting to see if she's in foal.”

Ballygallon retains Exultant's current 2-year-old relation, a filly by Raven's Pass that is in training with Joseph O'Brien and is “eight to 10 weeks from a run,” Strudwick said.

Exultant, already a winner of US$8.5 million and showing no signs of slowing down, has taken the Ballygallon team from County Kilkenny to the Curragh and halfway around the world, in a vicarious sort of way. Belinda Strudwick makes no attempt to conceal that pride. And why should she?

“For us it's a huge amount of fun because it gives us a tremendous interest in racing in that part of the world,” Strudwick said. “But also, to have bred a horse like him, owned him for part of his racing career, we are extremely delighted to see him continuing to do what he's doing in Hong Kong. Maybe next year it's the world for him.”

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