Kiwi jockey Craig Grylls has his sights firmly set on a first Derby win as the Singapore version rolls around Kranji next Sunday week.
The closest the winner of 750-odd races came to adding such a feather to his cap was when he rode Luenyat Blackberry to a second place in the 2013 Macau Derby (1800m) at one of his several trips to Macau.
He has also had a few cracks at the Gr.1 New Zealand Derby (2400m) in his own backyard, with a sixth place aboard Charles Road in last year’s renewal as his best result.
While silverware from eight Group One wins adorn his trophy cabinet, a Derby has proven slippery since he began his career in Matamata 12 years ago.
But the amiable rider has now suddenly found himself sitting atop one of the leading hopes to the third and final Leg of the Singapore Four-Year-Old Challenge, the S$1.15 million Emirates Singapore Derby (1800m) on July 15.
The plum ride actually fell his way after a spot of musical chairs. Grylls rode the Lee Freedman-trained Curvature in the first Leg, the Stewards’ Cup (1400m) on June 10, beaten a neck by Elite Invincible.
With Freedman not pressing on with Curvature towards the other Legs, Grylls was available in the second Leg, the Giovanni Racing Charity Bowl (1600m) two weeks later.
With Duric obviously sticking with Elite Invincible, trainer Mark Walker had to find another rider for Kingsman, whose two wins came under the Singapore champion jockey. That’s how Grylls got the nod on Kingsman while Nooresh Juglall jumped on his third runner, Lim’s Regard.
Elite Invincible won again to make it two Legs from two, but as convincing as the win was, to most pundits, the run of the race belonged to his stablemate Kingsman, who had been completely friendless in the betting at $189.
Settled at the rear, the son of Darci Brahma began a searching run from the 800m to come sailing home on the outside, only to miss out by a short head.
It was the second time in a row that Grylls had played second fiddle by such tiny margins, but the 28-year-old jockey was not too upset. He might be onto the one that matters come July 15.
“When Curvature didn’t run in the second Leg, I became available, and Mark asked me to ride Kingsman,” said Grylls.
“I always knew he had ability, but he was probably underrated in the race, and we weren’t too sure either how he would measure up at that level.
“Mark just told me to leave him out and not to bustle him up early. At the top of the straight, the horses in front opened up, but my horse had started a long run and came up behind them easy.
“He travelled to the line really well, and almost got up. Hopefully, he can go one better in the Derby.”
After such a bottler of a run, Grylls did not have to chew Walker’s ears off to keep the Derby ride.
“Shortly after the race, Mark told me I would stay on for the Derby. It’ll be a great race and I think he’ll be a good hope, even if Vlad’s horse will again be hard to beat,” he said.
“They actually galloped together on Track 6 on Wednesday morning. I rode Kingsman (while Walker’s apprentice jockey Zawari Razali was aboard Elite Invincible) and I was very happy with his workout.
“He seems to have improved from his last run. A drop of rain won’t hurt his chances either.”
Besides the significance of finally etching the word “Derby” on his CV while at the same time lifting his first trophy at a place where he has now plied his trade since July 2017, Grylls would get an extra kick in pulling off the feat in one of his country’s most famous racing colours.
“I didn’t ride a great deal for Te Akau Racing back home as they already have their stable jockeys, but it would be special to win the Derby for them here,” said Grylls.
“It would be such a big thrill to just win a Derby itself. I’ve come close in Macau, and I finished sixth in the New Zealand Derby last year.
“Dad (former New Zealand top rider Gary Grylls) never won a New Zealand Derby before. It would be nice to have that feather in the cap for the family!”
Grylls has a younger sister who is also a jockey, Bridget, who recently returned to New Zealand to pursue her riding career after spending five seasons in Queensland where she rode 138 winners. -STC