A derby day provides the perfect stage to make a statement. It’s the time to show you belong to the big league. Jockey Akshay Kumar did just that on a sultry Republic Day, piloting Lagarde to a phenomenal pole-to-finish victory in the blue riband event at the Bangalore Turf Club.
Gambling on setting the pace in the punishing 2400-metre long Kingfisher Ultra Derby Bangalore despite Lagarde being untested over 12 furlongs, Akshay anchored Lagarde brilliantly and the four-year-old colt responded equally well to his commands, galloping to a rousing victory.
Sovereign Legend, ridden by A Sandesh, finished second a length and a half behind, ruining what would have been a 1-2 for rising trainer Sulaiman S Attaollahi. His second horse Forest Flame, which was the pre-race favourite, lost second place by a nose length while Antibes finished fourth.
Handed charge of Lagarde just a few days ago after regular jockey Suraj Narredu chose to ride Forever Together, Akshay knew this was godsend for him to finally add a classic victory to his name following a few second-place finishes. But he had a couple of challenges to overcome if he harboured to break the jinx.
Apart from getting acclimatised to Lagarde in quick time, he had to figure out a strategy to outsmart Forest Flame, the filly unbeaten in her five previous starts and anchored by top jockey P Trevor, and Antibes, who had proven her staying prowess with a fine win in the Bangalore Oaks.
Akshay decided it’s better to come out firing from the gates and take the risks that come along with it. He maintained a steady lead over the rest of the pack right from the start and the lead stayed intact around the final bend and heading into the home straight.
Antibes, the only horse to have run 2400 metres in the field and piloted by S John, stayed nicely with the pack before opening her lungs. She narrowed the lead on Lagarde while Rambunctious, Neeraj Rawal astride, followed suit.
Over the next 100 metres, Sovereign Legend and Forest Flame kicked up several gears as the competition intensified with the pack hunting down on Lagarde. Akshay though was well prepared for the challenge. He egged on Lagarde furiously and the colt lit up the afterburners gloriously, increasing the lead in the final 100 meters to cross the line in 2 minutes and 32.21 seconds.
Akshay thus finally tasted a derby win which could catapult his career. Lagarde ended up scoring a hat-trick of classic wins after triumphing in the Indian 2000 Guineas and Bangalore 2000 Guineas. Another derby victory also solidified Attaollahi’s status as one of the top trainers in the country.
“What Akshay and Lagarde did today was phenomenal,” said Attaollahi, a third generation trainer. “I thank the trainers for giving me such a good horse which proved himself. The only disappointment was not getting a 1-2. Forest Flame didn’t get the space and kick at the crucial time. It lost by a nose. Else it would have been perfect day in the office.”
When asked if it was a conscious decision to set the pace in such a big race, Attaollahi said he gave full freedom to Akshay. “He came in a couple of days ago, had a look at Lagarde and instantly said he feels great. Of course, I gave him my inputs considering Suraj had ridden Lagarde in the previous two classics but gave him the freedom to do what he wanted. He anchored him exceptionally well. Hats off to him.”