June 22, 2024

Able Friend must overcome to regain Hong Kong Mile crown

Able Friend (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Able Friend (Aus), who demolished the field in the 2014 Hong Kong Mile (G1), is the most naturally talented horse in Sunday’s renewal at Sha Tin. The overriding scruple is whether the former Hong Kong Horse of the Year can be primed in only his second start back from a lengthy injury layoff.

Trainer John Moore didn’t mince words after Able Friend landed in the far outside post 14 at Thursday’s draw ceremony.

“Able Friend’s draw is a grave concern for the simple reason that he’s going into the race not 100 percent fit, in the sense that he missed an intended run going in, so he’s had just the one run leading into this race,” Moore said.

“I was hoping for a middle gate and that he could get some nice cover. From gate 14 he’s going to come back to the rear of the field and his task is going to be set, with respect to getting home in a very slick sectional time. His fitness is suspect. I’m worried.”

Able Friend will have to rely on his superior ability to overcome this difficult hand. On that score, there’s no doubt. At his peak, the Shamardal gelding was something to behold on this circuit, memorably rattling off six straight with consummate authority. He was unable to transfer that level of form to Royal Ascot in the 2015 Queen Anne (G1), winding up a subpar sixth, but bounced back with a vengeance to crush Hong Kong’s sprint colony in that fall’s Premier Bowl (G2).

Instead of serving as a harbinger of things to come, however, the Premier Bowl ended up being a dead end. Able Friend concluded the year with a pair of thirds, not looking himself when going down to Japanese superstar Maurice (Jpn) in his Hong Kong Mile title defense.

Subsequently diagnosed with a tendon injury, Able Friend returned to his native Australia in hopes that time and Mother Nature would heal him up. The prescription worked, and he was packed off to rejoin Moore.

Had that been the only setback, Able Friend might well have pulled off a glittering HKIR comeback. But he managed to tweak his hindquarters when horsing around in quarantine, delaying Moore’s carefully laid out timetable. Able Friend’s preparation was now reduced to Plan B – a single prep in the November 20 Jockey Club Sprint (G2), where he turned in a most promising fourth in his first start in 11 months.

Able Friend set for Hong Kong Mile after solid fourth in sprint comeback

Hopes were also buoyed by the fact that Able Friend has continued to train sharply in the interim. Maybe, just maybe, he could win regain his Mile crown after all. Then came the thunderclap of the draw, which has to put concern into the heart even the most die-hard fans.

A wide draw in and of itself is no issue in the Mile, since the last four winners of this race (and five of the last six) have broken from a double-digit post. But Moore explained why it’s not a straightforward comparison to Able Friend’s blitzing them from the far outside in 2014:

“He was a very fit horse two years ago when he won from a wide draw and he was peaking at that time.

“(Jockey) Joao (Moreira) did say it was a pity that we didn’t get that extra race into him. It was an impressive gallop (Thursday morning) but Joao was still a little bit reserved. The incident in quarantine delayed his prep and from the wide gate on Sunday his fitness will definitely be tested.”

Hong Kong’s arsenal well stocked

Even if Able Friend can’t pull it off, the local contingent still holds a strong hand. Hong Kong runners have prevailed in 11 of 17 runnings since this race became the Mile, and the top trainers have ample horsepower to uphold the tradition.

Helene Paragon (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Helene Paragon (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Moore has another key contender in Helene Paragon (Fr), whom he tabbed as “the pick of my runners in the race” in light of the question marks over Able Friend. Third in the 2015 Prix Jean Prat (G1) and fifth in the Poule d’Essai des Poulains (G1) during the European phase of his career, the import set an about nine-furlong course record at Sha Tin in the June 19 Premier Plate, and gave stablemate Joyful Trinity (Ire) 14 pounds and a drubbing in a Class 1 handicap at this trip. Helene Paragon has been rounding into form over the fall, rallying for second to Horse of Fortune in the November 6 Sa Sa Ladies’ Purse (G3) before getting strung up in traffic in the Jockey Club Mile (G2) last time. With a clear trip, he would have gone a lot closer, and possibly won the prep. Well drawn in post 5 here, Helene Paragon is sitting on a big effort. Moore’s third stringer, Joyful Trinity, benefited from a substantial weight concession to capture the October 1 Celebration Cup (G3). His ensuing efforts suggest he faces a tougher task at level weights on Sunday.

Trainer Tony Cruz is also triple-handed, with his chief protagonist being recent Jockey Club Mile hero Beauty Only (Ire). The winner of last year’s Hong Kong Classic Mile, the son of Holy Roman Emperor tried longer distances, but ultimately proved more effective at this trip. While Beauty Only usually needs pace help as a late runner, he’s a genuine and consistent type who’s held his own in Group 1 company, finishing third in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup (G1) over an inadequate 1400 meters and taking fourth in both the Stewards’ Cup (G1) and Champions Mile (G1). He’s strung together a series of solid preps, culminating in his last-out victory, and figures to come charging in deep stretch from post 13. Stablemate Beauty Flame (Ire) will show his customary early dash, but is unlikely to steal it as he did in the 2015 Jockey Club Mile. Rounding out Team Cruz is Romantic Touch (Aus), whose career high came as a juvenile in Australia in the 2013 J.J. Atkins (G1). Life’s been more challenging for him in Hong Kong, but he nearly sprang a 96-1 upset of Beauty Only last time.

Sun Jewellery (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Trainer John Size has a top threat in Sun Jewellery (Aus), the winner of two-thirds of the Hong Kong Four-Year-Old Series. After displaying a smart turn of foot to win the Hong Kong Classic Mile, the Snitzel gelding showed a touch of star quality to add the about nine-furlong Hong Kong Classic Cup. Despite traffic woes, and stamina limitations, Sun Jewellery once again got the better of eventual Hong Kong Horse of the Year Werther. That archrival finally came into his own going longer in the Hong Kong Derby. Sun Jewellery required a cutback in trip following his seventh there, and prospered in the 1400-meter Premier Cup.

A tiring sixth in his fall reappearance, Sun Jewellery was a near-miss third to Beauty Only in the Jockey Club Mile, and promises to peak in this third start of his form cycle. With a 7-for-11 local mark, the classy Australian-bred might be the home team’s leading chance. On paper, the stalker looks to get the run of the race from post 3, and even the understated Size has commented, “I think he’s got a good chance of winning the race.”

Size has another shot with the solid servant Contentment (Aus), fifth to Maurice in last year’s Hong Kong Mile and runner-up to him again in the May 1 Champions Mile (G1). Having secured his Group 1 laurel in this spring’s Silver Jubilee Cup, the son of Hussonet has yet to return to that standard in his fall preps. But he’s performed creditably while toting bigger weights, and eligible to move forward back at levels here. It’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s actually rated equal to Able Friend.

A much more mercurial character is Giant Treasure. Top-class when the stars align for him, the Richard Gibson trainee was in career form this time last year, finishing second in the Hong Kong Mile and coming right back to take the Stewards’ Cup (G1). Giant Treasure’s lost the plot since, and Gibson hopes that a change to blinkers will wake him up. The other local, Packing Pins (NZ), hasn’t built upon his third to Maurice and Contentment in the Champions Mile.

The Japanese team

The only country to deny Hong Kong milers over the past decade has been Japan, with Hat Trick (Jpn) (2005) and Maurice (Jpn) (2015) the bookends. Both were coming off wins in Kyoto’s Mile Championship (G1), unlike this year’s Japanese trio.

Logotype (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Logotype (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Logotype (Jpn) and Neorealism (Jpn) can each claim a victory over Maurice during the summer, although it might not be advisable to take it too literally. Maurice was slow to come right leading up to the June 1 Yasuda Kinen (G1), where the 36-1 Logotype snapped a three-year losing skid in a front-running display. Neorealism likewise took advantage of being lone speed to upend Maurice in the about 10-furlong Sapporo Kinen (G2) on rain-slowed ground.

The duo present very different profiles. Logotype was Japan’s champion two-year-old colt of 2012, and a record-setting winner of the 2013 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas) (G1), before forgetting how to win. The son of Lohengrin therefore has plenty of back class, and he reverts to a mile for the first time since his Yasuda Kinen upset. Although a decent fifth to Maurice in the Tenno Sho Autumn (G1) in his latest going about 1 1/4 miles, no horse has won the Mile on a cutback in trip. His inside draw and forward style should help in a race without a great deal of pace, but the suspicion is he could get outkicked by sharper types. That said, on paper, Logotype has the joint-highest international rating with Able Friend and Contentment.

Conversely, Neorealism is a late developer whose first graded win came in the Sapporo Kinen, and his rapid rise has lured Ryan Moore into the saddle here. A stablemate of Maurice from the Noriyuki Hori yard, the five-year-old is taking the typical route via the Mile Championship. Neorealism pressed the pace set by Mikki Isle (Jpn), only to suffer interference by the leader’s drifting in the stretch, lose his momentum, and wind up a close third. Had he been able to issue his challenge, Neorealism may well have captured his Grade 1 debut – and first try at a mile. He may again be in a good spot up on the early pace. The one question is if Neorealism, who’s spent his career over longer, can defeat specialist milers at this level. Pedigree says possibly: his half-brother is Grade 1-winning miler Real Impact.

Satono Aladdin (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Satono Aladdin (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

That’s a question Satono Aladdin (Jpn) doesn’t need to answer, since he’s got a rapier-like thrust. His marquee wins have come in swashbuckling style over 1400 meters in the May 14 Keio Hai Spring Cup (G2) and October 29 Swan (G2). But for some frustrating trips, the Yasutoshi Ikee pupil may already own a mile major. He didn’t get a seam until too late in the Yasuda Kinen, and speared through belatedly for fourth. Also a fast-closing fourth to Maurice in last year’s Mile Championship, he was another hampered by Mikki Isle’s waywardness in the November 20 renewal, winding up a luckless fifth. Satono Aladdin, a full brother to Grade 1 vixen Lachesis (Jpn), is good enough to join his sister on the honor roll – if he ever gets a bit of luck.

Aidan O’Brien sends the lone European

It’s been a dozen years since a European-based horse has won this, and Godolphin’s Firebreak (GB) (2004) was officially representing the U.A.E. If you abide by that technicality, you’ve got to go back to British invader Docksider (1999) in the first edition at a mile.

Better Europeans than Cougar Mountain (Ire) have tried and failed in the intervening years, and that makes it tough to rate his chances highly in this spot – even if he is trained by Aidan O’Brien.

Breeders’ Cup Internationals: Mile contender Cougar Mountain

Last seen closing from near the tail of the field for eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), Cougar Mountain has yet to break through at the highest level. His signature win in Newmarket’s Joel (G2) back in September isn’t quite up to this standard, and he’d excel himself to snare a place.