Able Friend became yet another great to meet defeat on international trial day in the Jockey Club Mile, but trainer John Moore was adamant last year's Longines Hong Kong Mile winner was on track to make it two on end.
After a sensational first-up win over 1,200m, Able Friend (Joao Moreira) was expected to complete the formality of another win returning his favourite distance, but this time the champion galloper was unable to produce the usual brand of finish and had to settle for third to Tony Cruz-trained Beauty Flame (Gerald Mosse) and John Size's Contentment (Nash Rawiller).
"It's disappointing not to win but I think he just put in a flat run," said Moore. "Joao thought there was an advantage to leaders today which didn't help him but I thought he was beaten on his merits. He has still run brilliant sectionals and I think he is still on target for his main goal in three weeks."
The first surprise of the race came when Beauty Flame did not take his customary role in the lead, but sat behind Moore-trained Secret Sham - a move that Cruz said he had foreseen.
"I thought they might let one of John's other horses run to the front for Able Friend, so we were happy to sit behind and use John's pacemaker as our own," Cruz said.
"I think we saw today that Beauty Flame might be better when he has a horse in front of him to chase."
Mosse said he hadn't been worrying about Able Friend in running and had ridden his own race but he, like everyone else, had expected to see the chestnut loom into his view in the straight.
"This is a good game, sometimes the best horse doesn't win, and in horse racing anything can happen," Mosse said.
"Last season, Able Friend went past me on this horse three times, so I was pleased today at the 200m when Able Friend wasn't there yet. Then when he still wasn't there at the 100m, I just took the race for myself and I went for home and got one back. Able Friend hit a traffic jam and I got a dream run following the other one into the straight, then when I showed him some daylight he really kicked.
"Maybe on international day, Able Friend will run past me again - or maybe Beauty Flame will win again."
Size was happy with Contentment's second, holding down the runner-up position when challenged by Able Friend in the final 100m, and he goes on to the Mile on international day, as does fifth-placed Packing Pins, if he is selected when the fields are announced on Wednesday.
"He was the youngest horse in the field and it showed, but I thought he was OK," said trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai. "I don't think a mile was a problem. We'll still go to international day if he gets a run."
Fourth-placed Giant Treasure however will be dropped back in distance and grade to the 1,400m Class One on the December 13, while Karis Teetan was positive on John Moore-trained Designs On Rome after his closing sixth, the gelding's first appearance after surgery in the off season.
"They left him behind for a few strides when they sprinted but he felt good in the run and I was very happy with how he ran home," he said.
"He's going to come on a lot in fitness between today and the Hong Kong Cup."
Moore was slightly disappointed with the run of Dan Excel though and said a switch to the longer Hong Kong Cup might be his preferred move.