HK Mile: defending champ Able Friend vs. rising star Maurice
Able Friend, Hong Kong’s reigning Horse of the Year, has often looked invincible over this course and distance. His 4 1/4-length tour de force in this race last year was part of a six-race winning spree, capped by the May 3 Champions Mile (G1). The chestnut hulk was accordingly all the rage for his venture to Royal Ascot for the Queen Anne (G1). But he was never happy (as illustrated by his sweating up beforehand) and uncharacteristically toiled home sixth, patently failing to do himself justice.
If there were any questions about what mark the trip may have left on him, Able Friend smashed them to pieces with a powerhouse return to Sha Tin in the October 25 Premier Bowl. Indeed, trainer John Moore said that Able Friend thrived physically during his post-Ascot summer holiday in England, and he proved it. Resuming over a six-furlong trip that’s short for him, and lumping the top weight of 133 pounds, he steamrolled Hong Kong’s best sprinters with a last-to-first rally. The second and third, Gold-Fun and Peniaphobia, came back to run one-two in the Jockey Club Sprint (G2), and loom as prime contenders in Sunday’s Hong Kong Sprint (G1).
But Able Friend promptly went out and lost his final prep, the November 21 Jockey Club Mile (G2), when only third to Beauty Flame and Contentment. As I argued in the Jockey Club Mile recap, Able Friend didn’t run badly in the circumstances, considering how the course was playing, the muddled pace, his weight, and his fine clocking for the final quarter-mile. Although that marked just his second loss from 10 starts over Sha Tin’s metric mile, it’s opened the door to speculation that maybe he’ll find it tougher to retain the Mile throne. Opponents have grabbed hold of that sliver of hope.
Moore is a master, however, at getting his horses to peak on the big occasion. Both he and ace jockey Joao Moreira have been raving about how much Able Friend has moved forward off that prep, when he might have been feeling the effects of a too-good run first up (i.e., “second-up syndrome”). We’ll see a vastly different Able Friend come Sunday.
Yet he’s meeting some stronger opposition than in the 2014 Hong Kong Mile. The flashiest is Maurice. A revelation in Japan this season, he’s swept all five starts, highlighted by a notable double in his homeland’s marquee mile events – the June 7 Yasuda Kinen (G1) and the November 22 Mile Championship (G1). He wheels back fairly quickly from the latter, but he hadn’t raced in between his Grade 1 coups. Maurice keeps his partnership with the all-world Ryan Moore, who paid him pretty handsome compliments after his latest. In the Mile Championship, Maurice overcame a wide trip throughout from post 16 and easily outkicked Fiero.
While Fiero has been runner-up in the past two Mile Championships (missing by a nostril in 2014), he was sixth to Able Friend here last year. He’s still yet to win a black-type stakes, and that makes him no more than an exotics chance on his best day.
But Japan does have another serious chance in Danon Platina, last year’s champion two-year-old colt who is undefeated from four starts at a mile. The gray has shown panache when smoothly improving his position en route to victories in the Asahi Hai Futurity (G1) and most recently in the October 24 Fuji (G3), where he outdueled the older Satono Aladdin off a six-month layoff. Satono Aladdin (who runs in Sunday’s Hong Kong Cup [G1]) was subsequently a rattling fourth to Maurice in the Mile Championship. Danon Platina missed that race due to a stone bruise (as reported by Sports Hochi), but he’s in grand order now. He’s been earning terrific reviews from Sha Tin work-watchers all week. One caution, though, is that no three-year-old has won this race since Additional Risk (in the 1991 inaugural when it was held at about seven furlongs).
Europeans have struggled in this race over the last decade and a half. Hong Kong has won nine straight, since Japan’s Hat Trick scored in 2005.
Four Europeans hope to buck that trend, chief among them Esoterique and Mondialiste, who both exit the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) at Keeneland. Although Mondialiste was a fast-finishing second to Tepin, and Esoterique was a trudging seventh, their finishing positions don’t reflect their past form.
Esoterique boasts a far higher level of performance in Europe. Second to Solow in the Queen Anne (thereby defeating the subpar Able Friend), and to the superb sprinting colt Muhaarar in the Prix Maurice de Gheest (G1), the Andre Fabre mare dusted males in the Prix Jacques le Marois (G1) and beat her own division in the Sun Chariot (G1). Those all came down straightaways, but she’s performed very well around Longchamp’s right-handed bend in the past. Fabre emphasizes that Esoterique was undone by the chewed-up ground at Keeneland. The Sha Tin course condition will be a lot better. The caveat is that Esoterique has two stats to defy: aside from the woes of Europeans, no mare has won this race since Australasian great Sunline in 2000. Distaffers like Darjina (2007) and Sahpresa (2010) have settled for third.
Mondialiste would have finished even closer to Tepin if he hadn’t had to wait for running room down the Keeneland stretch. The concern about him is that he’s got a profile somewhat reminiscent of Trade Storm, who could get no closer than seventh in last year’s Hong Kong Mile. Both had run well in the Strensall (G3) before winning the Woodbine Mile (G1) and placing in the Breeders’ Cup. To be fair, Mondialiste appears to be a bit better than Trade Storm, with some remaining upside for turnaround artist David O’Meara.
British-based Toormore hasn’t won a Group 1 since his championship campaign at two. The Richard Hannon pupil has managed to place a few times at this level, most recently taking third in the Prix de la Foret (G1), but he was safely held by Esoterique when fourth in the Queen Anne and fifth in the Marois. Toormore has needed a drop into Group 2 company to regain the winning thread in Europe. That presents an intriguing comparison to Mondialiste: the latter has boosted his profile by venturing to North America, but Toormore has hitherto been content to keep aiming high at home (with the exception of his annual raids on Turkey).
Red Dubawi has found new life since moving to Germany, and comes off a career high in the Premio Vittorio di Capua (G1). But this is a different universe of competition on ground likely quicker than he prefers.
Aside from Able Friend, Hong Kong fields six other hopefuls. Giant Treasure and Romantic Touch (right) have a sneaky look about them. Giant Treasure, a veteran of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Series, was a mildly closing fourth (one spot behind Able Friend) in the prep. An equipment change to first-time blinkers could conjure something extra. Romantic Touch captured the 2013 J.J. Atkins (G1) as a juvenile in Australia, beating Zoustar. Third in the Hong Kong Derby in March, the Northern Meteor gelding is in sharp form at the moment for Tony Cruz. Another furlong might help, though.
Beauty Flame was the giant slayer last time – the beneficiary of a perfect storm in the Jockey Club Mile – but he’s otherwise been settling for minor awards. At level weights here, he’d do well to place again. Contentment had won four straight prior to his runner-up effort in the Jockey Club Mile, where he too benefited from a five-pound weight concession that won’t be operative here. Rewarding Hero hasn’t hit the board since finishing second to Able Friend in the Champions Mile back in May. Secret Sham figures to carve out the pace for Able Friend.
Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club.
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