Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club: Able Friend’s in cheekpieces in background, next to pink-blinkered Aerovelocity
Although his 42-1 stablemate Not Listenin’tome claimed the spoils in Sunday’s Jockey Club Sprint (G2) at Sha Tin, former Hong Kong Horse of the Year Able Friend hinted that he retains his ability in his first start back from a tendon injury.
Sidelined since his third as the defending champion in last December’s Hong Kong Mile (G1), Able Friend obviously needed this run. In the circumstances, his fourth-place effort was full of promise. The John Moore charge was held up off the pace by Tommy Berry, and made headway into a contending position, until his lack of race-fitness told late in the 1200-meter (about six-furlong) dash.
Even so, Able Friend still fired off the fastest sectional of anyone at any point in the race – a second 400-meter time of :21.61. His final 400-meter split (:22.74) was a tad off the top two, with Not Listenin’to me clocking :22.63 and the late-running favorite Lucky Bubbles ripping in :22.25 to grab second. Only beaten a shade more than two lengths, Able Friend has a solid foundation to build upon over the next three weeks.
“It was a really good run,” Berry told the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s publicity, “and importantly he felt really good to me in his action. I thought I was the winner but he just blew out the last furlong. He’s right on track for wherever he goes next.”
“He went super,” Moore said. “Tommy said he bottomed out at the 150 meters but he was really thrilled about the run. He was going to win at the 200 meters, but by the time he got to the 150 meters he’d already had enough. Considering the amount of time he’s had off, though, you have to accept that and I’m sure he’ll be a much fitter horse come international day.”
Able Friend will now go up in trip and try to regain his crown in the Hong Kong Mile on December 11, Moore later confirmed to the South China Morning Post.
Not Listenin’tome, who finished in 1:08.26, will aim to improve on his third in last year’s Hong Kong Sprint (G1). Jockey Hugh Bowman noted that an equipment change – going back to the hood and adding earmuffs – made a substantial difference on Sunday.
“I got a lovely run, he settled the best he’s ever settled for me,” Bowman said.
“I was a bit worried today about the 1200 meters again, especially with the wide draw, but I think the earmuffs were an excellent addition to his gear and he was a much more settled individual this afternoon with that gear change. Because he was more settled, he was able to see the 1200 meters out really strongly and it’s great to see him winning at this level over this distance, because it opens up a lot more opportunities for him.”
That said, Not Listenin’tome did get the run of the race, sitting in the garden spot in third as Peniaphobia was pestered by Dashing Fellow. He was on the premises to make the winning move. In contrast, Lucky Bubbles was left with far too much to do, and he did well to come charging and miss by a half-length. I’d suspect that Lucky Bubbles may get his vengeance on December 11.
Bowman mentioned that Not Listenin’tome will need to up his game again come international day.
“I feel he will have to run a little bit better than he did today to win in three weeks, because I feel it will be a stronger race,” his jockey observed.
Moore said that the prep set up perfectly for Not Listenin’tome.
“Everything fell into place today,” the horseman said. “Today, he’d come into the race in fine form but he was the forgotten horse. We know when he’s at his best he can do something like he did today, and today’s been one of those days where there’s been a lot of roughies get up. So he just continued the trend!”
Another of those roughies was Secret Weapon, who upended the “big three” in the Jockey Club Cup (G2) and threw the local Hong Kong Cup (G1) picture into disarray.
Although in the best form of his life in 2016 for trainer Dennis Yip, Secret Weapon still appeared a cut below such Hong Kong venerables as Designs on Rome, Blazing Speed, and Military Attack. But in what turned out to be a perfect storm for Secret Weapon, he surged at the precise time the old champions either failed to fire or hurt themselves in the attempt.
In the latter category was defending champion Military Attack, who was a heroic third, only to pull up lame. Since this was his first start back from a suspensory injury, trainer Caspar Fownes is concerned about a possible recurrence. That would likely be a career-ender for the eight-year-old.
In the former category of disappointing were Blazing Speed, who wound up fifth, and favored Designs on Rome, who trailed. Blazing Speed may have been compromised by a course that wasn’t firm as he likes, according to jockey Neil Callan. The race didn’t unfold the way Designs on Rome prefers, but Moore believed his performance had more to do with regression. He told South China Morning Post that it was a case of “second-up syndrome,” since Designs on Rome had returned with a bang in the Sha Tin Trophy (G2).
Credit where it’s due, for Secret Weapon seized this opportunity with all four hooves, and scythed through the field to prevail by 1 1/2 lengths. Quickening smartly through a final 400 meters in :22.55, he completed 2000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles) in 2:00.92.
Yet the Hong Kong Cup will be a whole new world compared to this.
“The field wasn’t too strong today, so I thought he would run a good race,” Yip himself said.
Also, the runner-up was 79-1 longshot Flame Hero, who isn’t even engaged in any of the Hong Kong International Races on December 11. Fourth-placer Helene Happy Star, who delivered an enterprising effort on the front end, is nominated to the Hong Kong Vase (G1) over an extra couple of furlongs.
There was nearly a massive upset in the Jockey Club Mile (G2), but the shock was averted when 2-1 Beauty Only edged 96-1 stablemate Romantic Touch and gave trainer Tony Cruz the exacta. Swooping from far back down the center of the course, Beauty Only sped his final 400 meters in :22.29 to get up in 1:33.79
“Today I expected him to win,” Cruz said. “I also expected Romantic Touch to put in a big race, but I didn’t expect him to run second!
“Beauty Only has great potential. He’s a really solid miler and he needs a firm track. There looks to be a lot of kick-back (on the turf) today and (jockey) Zac (Purton) said there was and that the horse didn’t really like it. He loves real fast ground.
“I believe he can be a big player on international day. He’s a much better racehorse than this time last year. He’s much more professional and he’ll be spot on for the big day – I’m looking forward to it.”
Favored Sun Jewellery checked in a close third, taking another step forward in this second start off the layoff, and could be poised to peak third time out in the Hong Kong Mile. The Moore-trained Joyful Trinity made eyecatching progress from last for fifth, thanks to a :22.22 final sectional.
Trip handicappers will highlight Helene Paragon, who was moving well between horses when he was shut off. His seventh place therefore comes with a sizeable asterisk. He’s yet another from the power-packed Moore yard, which has more weaponry in the Mile arsenal alongside Able Friend.
With the preps in the books, fans won’t have long to wait for the full list of Hong Kong International Race contenders. The formal announcement comes on Wednesday.