The underdog tag sits very well with trainer Gary Portelli as he prepares Encap for a shot at an unlikely Group 1 at Rosehill on Saturday.
It’s unlikely because the three-year-old had been struggling to find his place in the world before his coming of age this spring.
He was a $200,000 purchase at Easter, Portelli says that’s cheap for the Inglis sale, who was a bit small and bred to be fast but who couldn’t seem to keep up – or want to keep up – early on.
“He’s one that slipped through the cracks,’’ Portelli said.
“He was a little on the small side, he suited me because of his pedigree. He had a speedster’s pedigree, a Golden Slipper pedigree really. By a Golden Slipper winner out of a mare by a Golden Slipper winner.
“He was just small, a bit short coupled, didn’t have much scope and looked a fast horse. I thought if he couldn’t gallop first gallop we’d be in a bit of trouble.
“As it was he was a bully little colt and wouldn’t go at all. He came back as a gelding and improved, and has not stopped improving.”
That improvement has seen Encap go from being a $7 chance in a maiden in mid-July to $10 (as at Thursday) in Saturday’s Group 1 $1 million Kia Golden Rose (1400m).
That’s on the back of a slick win in the Group 3 Ming Dynasty over the same course two weeks ago where he stopped the clock just 0.38 below In The Congo’s race record in winning the Rose in 2021.
It’s all taken Portelli by surprise.
While he did show a bit of early speed in his first trial and first race start he’d lost it all when returned in the winter and the trainer wondered whether he’d win a race after he got out the back in his Hawkesbury trial and had to pushed to run in winning a Rosehill trial.
“I was super concerned at that point because he’d been working okay and I expected him to win the (Hawkesbury) trial. He couldn’t keep up, rattled home okay but there was a question mark,” he said.
“The improvement from this horse from that barrier trial until now you couldn’t write the script. It’s unbelievable, it just doesn’t happen.
“The fact he ran time the other day would suggest if he reproduces that run he’s a top three or four chance for sure.
“He’s the underdog that just keeps sniping away and making his way up the ladder.”
Dylan Gibbons, who rode the gelding in his narrow first-up maiden defeat, is back on board Encap and Portelli is confident having had experience on the horse he’ll give him every chance from barrier three.
While his two maiden placings and luckless third in the Group 3 Up And Coming were from well off the pace, in the Ming Dynasty he was able to box seat and Portelli hopes Encap can land in a similar position just off the speed from another favourable draw.
“I think he can be just on the pace somewhere, stalking a leader like we did the other day,’’ he said.
“He takes a bit of winding up. When he was beaten a couple of times jockeys were a bit late to get going on him and he takes about 100m before he starts to get going.
“He’s a work in progress but he couldn’t be peaking on a better day. I haven’t found his ceiling yet, I hope we haven’t found it. I don’t know what he’s capable of because he’s done more than we’ve ever dreamt he would do.”
Portelli said Encap’s trackwork this week mirrors the work he produced on the way to his Group 3 win and that’s an encouraging sign for a Group 1 that certainly wasn’t on the radar a couple of months ago.
Meanwhile, Portelli was rapt with Group 1 winner Fireburn’s second-up performance in the 7 Stakes (1600m) last weekend and said she’s likely to progress to the Group 2 $2 million Hill Stakes (1900m) on October 7 or the Stocks Stakes in Melbourne.
She finished eighth at Randwick but recorded 33.12 for her last 600m, the second fastest in the race.
“Her sectionals were fantastic and she’s ready to go next start. The fact she got home in 33 the other day that means she’s not just a wet tracker,’’ he said.
– Racing NSW