Maurice makes it six straight in Hong Kong Mile

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December 13th, 2015

There’s a new “beast from the East.” Japan’s Maurice has laid claim to that title after invading Sha Tin and deposing Able Friend on his home turf in Sunday’s Hong Kong Mile (G1).

Now that I’ve employed my snappy opener, let’s be fair to Able Friend, who was lucky even to make the race after 11th-hour foot trouble. Hong Kong’s reigning Horse of the Year was found to have “mild foot lameness” in his right front Sunday morning. He had to run the gauntlet of veterinary inspections, finally gaining clearance before noon local time. The faithful still made him the favorite, and for an instant in the stretch, Able Friend hinted that maybe he could pull it off. But he fell a length shy in third.

It will be a topic of controversy just how much the ill-timed foot problem cost Able Friend. Perhaps the interpretive key is provided by outsider Giant Treasure, who improved in first-time blinkers and ran the race of his life in second. Yet even in the local prep, the Jockey Club Mile (G2), Giant Treasure was just a neck behind Able Friend when fourth. There would have been a chasm between the two in the past; now, they’ve been separated by a neck twice in a row, with Able Friend not giving his true running. I chalked up his loss that time to a constellation of factors, but expected him to rebound here -- before news broke of his injury scare. While it would be understandable if these were two completely distinct and unrelated circumstances, I’m starting to wonder if there weren’t more to his prep loss as well.

Just to add a further twist, there would have been another Japanese runner right in the thick of the finish – Danon Platina – if he hadn’t found a ridiculous amount of traffic. Roughed up by bumping near the back of the pack early, Japan’s champion two-year-old colt of 2014 was stymied behind horses repeatedly down the stretch. Danon Platina finished with interest when he saw daylight a few yards from home, but it was obviously too late. He somehow still clocked the fastest final 400 meters in :22.17, compared to Maurice’s :22.28 and Able Friend’s :22.31.

That raw finishing time for Able Friend looks quick, but during his winning spree last winter and spring, he was routinely posting faster. In last year’s Hong Kong Mile, for example, he served up a :21.71 (off a slightly faster midrace tempo, no sit-and-sprint).

Able Friend was held up further back in the field, as usual, in the slipstream of Maurice. When set down at the head of the lane, he actually picked up faster than Maurice and went past him. But unlike the typical Able Friend, he wasn’t able to sustain it. On the head-on replay, you can see him switching leads, and perhaps more tellingly, wandering a little. Between the clock, and the video evidence, you’d be persuaded that this wasn’t the pitch-perfect Able Friend. Might the old Able Friend have contained Maurice? I’m tempted to answer a reflexive yes, but we’ll have to hope for a rematch to know for certain.

That’s mainly because Maurice looks like the type who does his job smoothly and may not overexert himself unnecessarily. Although momentarily caught out by Able Friend’s initial turn of foot, Maurice covered the move. He lengthened stride, roared back, and won cozily by three-quarters of a length in a final time of 1:33.92. In the process, he gave Ryan Moore an HKIR double on the day, after Highland Reel in the Hong Kong Vase (G1).

Esoterique (dark silks, second right) proved her Breeders’ Cup run all wrong with a fine fourth, a length behind Able Friend. Locals Contentment and Beauty Flame came next, each stalking the pace and pouncing early in the straight before being overwhelmed by the top four from further back. Danon Platina (far right) is the unlucky one to take out of the race. We’ll be hearing a lot more from this soon-to-be four-year-old. British shippers Toormore and Mondialiste ran well below form when 11th and 12th, respectively. Toormore paid the price for chasing the pace out wide. This may have been a bridge too far for Mondialiste after his excellent runs at Woodbine and Keeneland.

Maurice has now won six straight for trainer Noriyuki Hori, his last three in lucrative mile prizes – the Yasuda Kinen (G1), Mile Championship (G1) and the Hong Kong showpiece. As good as he’s been in Japan, he proved something extra here. He was reportedly a bit nervous after traveling, so he didn’t have a straightforward week. This also marked his second start back from a five-month layoff, and he was wheeling back on three weeks’ rest. A slight regression would have been understandable. Instead, he ran out a ready winner.

Selected quotes from the Hong Kong Jockey Club

Jockey Ryan Moore on Maurice: "I was a little worried about him today, with him traveling and things. It took him a while to settle into the place but going to the start I was happy, he was moving well and relaxed well.

"He really dug in the last furlong and showed plenty of heart. A stronger pace would have been better for him.

"I think in Japan (the Mile Championship) he was slightly more impressive on the day but he's had to travel in. That was his first run for a long time and he's backed up three weeks later. He's a very good horse and the race in Kyoto is always a very hard race and he's probably slightly underrated on what he's done. He's a top-class miler."

Trainer John Moore on third-placer Able Friend: “He hit the front and I was hoping he would sustain it. I don't know if his foot injury this morning had anything to do with it but it did take three checks from the vets before we could run him. It is the only excuse I can think of right now."

Jockey Joao Moreira on Able Friend: "He just got to the front and then just flattened out in the last 100 meters. I don't why."

Trainer Sakae Kunieda on Danon Platina (seventh): “He was tense in the starting in the starting gate and travelled further back than expected. He was then boxed in and came through but it was too late.”

Jockey Danny Tudhope on Mondialiste (12th): “He was very keen. He’s had a long year and a hard season. He’s one that has that has quickened on before. He’s better with cut in the ground but today the ground felt too quick for him. He was hanging as well up the straight. He just wasn’t himself today.”


Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club (second cropped from a larger one).