Able Friend must bring A-game to prove his class at Royal Ascot
He may not be favourite, but star chestnut can prove he's world's best miler - if he displays best form
"We are here to prove Able Friend is the best in the world."
Those were the words of George Moore, son of trainer John Moore, at a pre-Royal Ascot press conference on Thursday. On Tuesday, when the highest-rated Hong Kong horse of all time lines up in the Queen Anne Stakes over the straight mile, he has the opportunity to do just that.
For local disciples who have got used to the procession of top-class victories at short odds, it will seem sacrilege that Able Friend is not even the favourite. Does this reflect the size of the task he faces or just that the rest of the world does not yet fully appreciate the monster they are about to witness?
The equine opposition is headed by Solow, rated just one pound inferior in the international rankings off the back of his victory in Dubai. He has an unusual profile, having started off in longer trips and then been gelded before now seeming to find his niche around a mile.
He can be said to still be improving but his back catalogue does not yet have the depth of Able Friend's and he has benefitted from a rusty The Grey Gatsby in Dubai and a below-par Cirrus des Aigles last time in France. It could be argued that the Queen Anne represents just as big a test for Solow as Able Friend in cementing his reputation as world-class.
Of the home challenge, the credentials on paper of dual Group One winner Night of Thunder are impressive. Winners of the 2000 Guineas and Lockinge Stakes are clearly no slouches, but the Guineas was a strange race where they split into two and favourite Kingman showed his hand a bit early.
At Ascot last year when Kingman was held on to longer, Night of Thunder was firmly put in his place and my feeling is the older milers this year in the UK will be very vulnerable when crossing swords later in the season with the likes of Gleneagles from this year's Classic crop. If so, they will all struggle to cope with Able Friend at his best.
In fact, it is likely the challenge of reproducing his Hong Kong performances, rather than any of his opponents, will prove Able Friend's greatest task.
In Hong Kong racing there are far fewer variables and once a horse conquers them, if staying sound and healthy, then repeat successes are likely. At Ascot those variables are far more numerous and challenging.
For example, for a horse that has been able to stroll to work every day, then a 20-hour flight and new training environment is understandably alien.
Also, every single one of Able Friend's races has been at Sha Tin and round a turn where jockey Joao Moreira knows with perfect accuracy where he should be positioned every step of the way. The challenge of a straight mile where landmarks are few and far between, and over which both horse and rider lack experience, makes timing a challenge far harder.
With its high sand content, unless Tuesday throws up a genuinely wet track, the surface at Ascot should not be a problem - but a steady tempo could be, especially with the likelihood that Solow will be positioned ahead of Able Friend in the run and hence has the potential to get first crack if it turns into a dash.
The ability to tune into the "rhythm" of a race is one of Moreira's great strengths and it will be tested to the full on Tuesday.
So will "Hong Kong's horse" prove himself on the global stage?
If Able Friend brings his A-game the answer is a resounding yes - but, unlike at home, if events conspire against him, a B or C performance will not prove good enough.
- Richard Hoiles is a presenter on Racing UK, where you can see every race live from Royal Ascot and 33 other UK racecourses - http://intl.racinguk.com