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Homeracing

Able Friend launches comeback in Hong Kong

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 19th, 2016

On Sunday, Sha Tin stages a trio of local preps for the December 11 Hong Kong International Races (HKIR), and there’s no dispute about the brightest storyline: the return to action of former Hong Kong Horse of the Year Able Friend.

“I think he has more people watching him this week than are watching what Donald Trump is doing!”  trainer John Moore quipped to the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s David Morgan.

Sensational in the 2014 Hong Kong Mile (G1) during a six-race winning spree, Able Friend appeared poised for a title defense when blasting specialist sprinters in last fall’s Premier Bowl (G2). But he was subsequently a lackluster third in both the Jockey Club Mile (G2) and the Hong Kong Mile. Clearly not right, the Australian-bred son of Shamardal was diagnosed with a potentially career-threatening tendon injury.

Moore sent him home to Australia for a lengthy convalescence, until the strapping chestnut was ready to resume training. After arriving in quarantine in Hong Kong, however, Able Friend sustained a self-induced setback and tweaked his hind end in September. The beast has put that behind him and is now fit enough to commence his comeback.

“He’s seven years old and you cannot expect a horse of his age to be physically perfect – he can’t be 100 percent anymore,” Moore cautioned.

“He’s not getting any younger; it’s like any athlete, over time the body changes and there are little bits of wear and tear to deal with. That’s normal. But when it comes to ability and heart, he’s lost none of that.

“He’ll overcome all that, though and he’ll be a force to reckon with, both on the weekend and in December.”

Since a mile would be asking too much at this point, Moore is bringing him back in Sunday’s Jockey Club Sprint (G2). The about six-furlong affair is a course-and-distance prep for the Hong Kong Sprint (G1) during the HKIR festivities, and his trainer is leaving options open for December. Depending upon how he fares in his first start in 11 months, Able Friend could stick to the sprinting game for the HKIR, or step up to try to regain his crown in the Mile.

The Jockey Club Sprint has attracted the leading speedsters on the local scene, and considering their dominance over the internationals in the Hong Kong Sprint, that makes it a very salty spot.

It’s not a straightforward handicapping exercise either. As with all of the HKIR lead-ins, you’ve got to predict who’s primed to deliver a top effort in the prep, as opposed to those with a “stepping stone” philosophy.

The past two Hong Kong Sprint heroes, reigning champion Peniaphobia and Aerovelocity, are clashing once more. Peniaphobia isn’t helped by his top weight of 128 pounds, and elder statesman Aerovelocity is getting up in age. They’ll need to be at their best to contain the up-and-coming Lucky Bubbles, who’s defeated them in their last pair. Beaten a scant neck by Australian whirlwind Chautauqua in the May 1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize (G1), Lucky Bubbles resurfaced to capture the October 23 Premier Bowl over several of Sunday’s rivals. The runner-up was fellow whippersnapper Amazing Kids, who’d uncorked a blistering rally to prevail in the October 1 National Day Cup (G3). 

The well-bred Strathmore, last seen finishing third to Chautauqua and Lucky Bubbles in the Chairman’s Sprint Prize, turned in a sharp trial for this reappearance. Aside from Able Friend, Moore has multiple Group 1-placed Not Listenin’tome, third in last year’s Hong Kong Sprint but yet to hit his stride this term, and third-stringer Dashing Fellow. Rounding out the 10-horse field are the hit-and-miss Dundonnell and Lucky Year, who’s climbed his way through the ranks but has something to prove at this level.

***

If the Hong Kong sprint division is unearthing new talent, the milers are experiencing a changing of the guard that may be ratified in Sunday’s Jockey Club Mile.

Sun Jewellery garnered champion miler honors for the 2015-2016 season, largely on the strength of his victories over his own age group in the Hong Kong Classic Mile and Classic Cup. The John Size trainee did beat his elders in the June 19 Premier Cup, albeit with the help of a weight break, and he seeks to confirm his status here. Although the Snitzel gelding was only sixth in the October 23 Sha Tin Trophy, he was a bit fresh first up and overraced stalking the slow pace. Sun Jewellery should be a different proposition in this second start of his fall campaign.

Size fields another contender in Contentment, who broke through at the top level in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup (G1) back in February and finished second to Japanese star Maurice in the May 1 Champions Mile (G1). But Contentment flopped last time out, for no apparent reason, as the defending champion in the Sha Tin Trophy. He therefore goes on a retrieval mission, and the 128-pound co-highweight has to spot some serious rivals five pounds.

Tony Cruz is triple-handed, with Beauty Only leading the way. The 2015 Classic Mile winner was most recently a barnstorming third, despite an unsuitable pace scenario, to Designs on Rome (see below) in the Sha Tin Trophy. He’s bound to get one of these to fall his way, eventually. Stablemate Beauty Flame was an opportunistic scorer in this race a year ago, but hasn’t won since, and he’d require everything to fall into his lap again. Romantic Touch was on an upward curve at this time last season, but he’s looking exposed now and likely prefers a little more ground.

Giant Treasure is a win threat on his day, as evidenced by his third to Maurice and Able Friend in last December’s Hong Kong Mile and his victory over Contentment and Cruz’s “Beauties” in the January 31 Stewards’ Cup (G1) at this track and trip. Yet the Juddmonte-bred gray has been disappointing ever since, and trainer Richard Gibson adds a visor – and brings back Christophe Soumillon – in hopes of an awakening. Like Contentment, Giant Treasure is anchored by 128 pounds.

Moore’s duo of Helene Paragon and Joyful Trinity are progressive European imports who have already won local prizes. Joyful Trinity capitalized on a substantial weight break to upend the Cruz crew, and Contentment, in the October 1 Celebration Cup, and followed up with a useful fourth in the Sha Tin Trophy. Helene Paragon landed the Premier Plate in course-record time in June, but needed more time to knock off the cobwebs. His rattling second in the November 6 Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse, despite a troubled trip, will likely have him ripe for Sunday.

Seven-furlong aficionado Packing Pins excelled himself when third in the Champions Mile, and needs to improve again to earn a first stakes success. Dirt specialist Gun Pit, who unfortunately missed out on the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) due to visa issues, is the only entrant not nominated to the Hong Kong Mile.

***

As with the Jockey Club Sprint and Mile for their respective HKIR races, the Jockey Club Cup (G2) identifies the top local hope for the Hong Kong Cup (G1), and the old guard of Designs on Rome, Blazing Speed, and Military Attack are back in the fray. Designs on Rome and Military Attack are both former Hong Kong Horses of the Year, and reigning champion stayer Blazing Speed is a marvel of versatility as a top-level winner from a mile to 1 1/2 miles.

Designs on Rome usually saves his peak efforts for when it counts on the biggest days, so it could be a very encouraging sign that he won first up for Moore in the Sha Tin Trophy (pictured). That coup came with the assist of jockey Karis Teetan, who sensed the steady pace, launched an early move, and held the late thrust of Blazing Speed. His 128-pound impost isn’t helpful here, but Designs on Rome brings a world-class resume, highlighted by the 2014 QEII Cup (G1) and Hong Kong Cup. With his 2015 season affected by surgery, he’s reportedly in the best shape he’s been for a long time right now. Moore

Blazing Speed and Military Attack have fought out the finish of this race for the past two years, with Blazing Speed getting the nod in 2014 and Military Attack gaining slim revenge in 2015. Neither was able to turn the double in the Hong Kong Cup, though. Interestingly, both did best in the HKIR in the years they lost this prep – Military Attack just missed to Designs on Rome in the 2014 HKIR, and Blazing Speed was best of the locals when third last December.

This time around, Blazing Speed figures to have old Military Attack’s measure. Military Attack has been sidelined since injuring a suspensory when seventh to Blazing Speed in the Champions & Chater Cup (G1), and faces a fitness question here in his return from a nearly seven-month layoff.

In addition to Blazing Speed, Cruz calls upon the up-and-coming Anticipation and the seen-better-days Helene Super Star (formerly known as Lines of Battle). Anticipation was a wide-trip fifth in the Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse, but he projects a kinder passage from the rail here. Considering that he’d readily beaten Ladies’ Purse third Eastern Express in a Class 2 handicap two back, Anticipation’s likely better than he showed last time. But Eastern Express adds blinkers for Size, and he too has more to offer as a fellow son of Fastnet Rock.

The other entrants are likewise exiting losses in the Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse. Secret Weapon (fourth) and non-HKIR nominated Flame Hero (10th) have reached their ceiling. Moore has Helene Happy Star (the trailer) as an understudy to Designs on Rome. With his proficiency going longer, it’s no surprise that his HKIR interest is in the 1 1/2-mile Hong Kong Vase (G1) rather than the Cup.

***

The Jockey Club Cup is carded as the 6TH race (2:30 a.m. ET), followed by the Mile (3:05 a.m. ET) and the Sprint (3:40 a.m. ET). If you can, keep watching for a couple of budding celebrities in the final two races, a pair of Class 2 handicaps. Pakistan Star runs in the 9TH race (4:15 a.m. ET) over a metric mile, and last season's champion griffin (youngster), Mr Stunning, contests the six-furlong nightcap (4:50 a.m. ET).

Photos courtesy Hong Kong Jockey Club

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