The running of last Sunday’s Group 1 Raffles Cup (1600m) saw the triumph of a great champion in Debt Collector, but it was also a good occasion to revive the wonderful memories of past greats, and none had earned more popular acclaim than Flax easily winning the then 1800m-long feature for South African owners Dennis and Gael Evans in 2012.
The bay could run, but perhaps the more endearing appeal about the South African-bred by Silvano was his small size, almost pony-like when dwarfed by the other thoroughbreds.
Not to mention his proneness to heat stress. He even collapsed once or twice, making him one of the first horses at Kranji to have staff with buckets of water on standby after the winning post!
Flax (Michael Rodd) at his last Kranji win in the Group 3 Committee's Prize (1600m) on September 20, 2015.
Those handicaps, however, didn’t stop Flax from grossing close to $1.3 million in prizemoney amassed from nine wins and six placings at Kranji, including four wins at Group level, amazingly one every year barring his debut year of 2011 for a record which can sum him up in one phrase – small in stature but big in heart.
Though well backed in the Raffles Cup, his first silverware, he literally turned giant-killer in the other three when neglected in the betting – the 2013 Group 2 Chairman’s Trophy (1800m), 2014 Group 3 Jumbo Jet Trophy (1400m) and 2015 Group 3 Committee’s Prize (1600m), fittingly his swansong at the age of nine before he was shipped back to his place of birth for a well-earned retirement.
Some reports later surfaced that he actually still raced in neighbouring Zimbabwe at Borrowdale Park, and even won a race, still sporting the Evans’ pink and blue Newbury colours.
It turned out that the old boy was not quite ready to be put to pasture.
“At the conclusion of his racing career at Kranji with David and Sammi Hill, who treated him so incredibly well, Flax did not settle well for some reason when we retired him to Gael's farm in the Limpopo Province, along with Meteor Mike,” said Dennis Evans.
“Though the farm is an idyllic place surrounded by pine and avocado plantations with champagne air, and he was cared for professionally, he did not seem a happy horse.
“At that time we were sending horses to the stable of Bridget Stidolph who trains at Borrowdale in Harare, Zimbabwe, to help out the racing industry that was suffering from a lack of stock resulting in fields being so small that meetings were at risk of continuing. She had worked wonders with difficult horses and it was decided to send Flax to her.”
On the long journey to Harare, Flax had to stop over in Johannesburg where he spent a few days at Sharon Patterson’s pre-training/spelling/training facility.
All of a sudden, the spark in the old prize fighter was back!
Flax and his new carer, trainer Bridget Stidolph.
Flax at his new home in Harare (photos courtesy of Gael
“Sharon phoned me to say that Flax was a different horse once he began going out in the morning with the youngsters, squealing and bucking,” said Evans.
“He then continued to show the same well-being in Harare where he is so spoilt. He actually raced a couple of times, weighted out of it by a nervous handicapper initially but the gentle runs did no harm.
“Then the rain came and gave him the going he loves, over 1,450 metres, and he won by two and a half lengths at 20/1!
“That was his last run and he's now the happiest of horses, especially when showing the two-year-olds what to do on the track in the morning!”
Evans regularly gets an update from Stidolph how his champ is doing while looking out the window from their Limpopo farm to watch Meteor Mike cavort around in the paddocks – with rhinos and elephants (fencing in between, of course) further out in the backdrop.
And what about his other superstar, Ato? The son of Royal Academy famously won the KrisFlyer International Sprint winner in 2012 – the only other local horse to have won the now-defunct glamour sprint race after Rocket Man, one year earlier, and both trained by Patrick Shaw – on the same day Flax ran a stunning third to Chinchon in the main showpiece, the also discontinued Singapore Airlines International Cup.
The Evans’ tough sprinter is the only one still “working”.
Similarly to Flax, Ato bowed out a Group winner in the Group 3 Saas Fee Stakes (1400m) on October 28, 2012. He was getting geared up for a tilt at the Longines Hong Kong Sprint (1200m) later in the year, but became lame, and was retired to stud the winner of nine (four at Group level) of his 25 races and stakes close to $1.6 million.
“From Ato's first crop of 32 babies, 18 have run, producing eight wins and 28 placings. He currently stands at Jan Mantel's stud in Robertson, the Millstream Stud Farm,” said Evans.