Why Able Friend's Jockey Club Mile travails could bode well for Hong Kong Mile defence
The six-year-old had too many factors against him last Saturday but now has the obligatory 'bad run' out of his system
Last week's column focused on the real possibility that horses which won on Jockey Club trial day would not be the winners at the Longines Hong Kong International Races.
Just five of the last 30 trial winners across the three distances were also winners on the main day, we wrote.
Well, looking back, that should come as good news for Able Friend's prospects of taking out another Hong Kong Mile, and doesn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm for how Peniaphobia is going either.
It was a slightly odd day, but that often coincides with this day and also quite often with the B+2 course and allegations of on-pace bias.
In the Jockey Club Sprint, clearly there was a pact signed somewhere to really test the bias theory, because a severe leader bias is about the only way that Peniaphobia, Super Jockey et al, were going to keep going after getting through the middle 400m in 21.81 seconds.
Going back to the start of the 2004-05 season, only nine of almost a thousand 1,200m races at Sha Tin on turf have gone quicker through that section. (It may even be fewer than that, because the Jockey Club only started using hundredths of a second in times from September, 2008, and the four of those nine times with 21.80 seconds as the middle split could actually have been 21.82 seconds. Anyway, we digress.)
With a fair bit of speed inside, Saturday might have been a good time to try Peniaphobia ridden more quietly, but once the whole leader bias thing took a grip, well, that was never going to happen.
Gold-Fun, who seems to have developed a habit of flopping out of the gates last, was again the beneficiary of a strong pace as a result. While Peniaphobia was being burned to a crisp in the furnace up front, Gold-Fun was able to come into the race as the leaders charred and Peniaphobia did a good job to run a place. Ridden more quietly, sitting midfield or so where the winner was? It's hard to say what would have happened, as the major contributor to the crazy speed would have been missing, but we still get the feeling Peniaphobia one day gets a more relaxed run behind a good speed and wins comfortably - maybe the Hong Kong Sprint could be the day.
On Able Friend's defeat, the champion miler's fan reach is unquestioned. Great to see Australian Hall Of Fame trainer Lee Freedman tuning in before giving the Magic Man a social media serve over his ride. We haven't seen Lee this invested in Hong Kong form since he told this writer and former SCMP racing editor Murray Bell we were about to be globally embarrassed for tipping Sacred Kingdom in the Hong Kong Sprint and not Miss Andretti. Maybe next time.
And then there was a commentator in the UK who suggested Able Friend had to cope with "ground slightly softer than ideal". Hmmm. The state of the ground for Saturday's trial events would see horses scratched in Britain. It may have been described as 'good' but there is good and there is good - and this track was good to firm. No, not as fast as the same meeting a year ago, or even a week earlier when Sha Tin was like Gloucester Road, but on par with any other firm track presented this season.
Actually, winning trainer Tony Cruz's expectation that Secret Sham would go out and run them along for the sake of stablemate Able Friend may or may not have proved correct but it did contribute to the stop-start pace as there was no longer any competition between Beauty Flame and Secret Sham for the front. Gerald Mosse surrendered from the get-go and Secret Sham actually got well in front of the field without going fast at all. Of the last 800-plus mile races at Sha Tin on good or faster tracks, more than 100 have gone out faster. Two races earlier, we had Class Three horse Doyeni run two seconds faster from the 1,600m to the 1,200m than Secret Sham - yes, from a running start, but still two seconds. And he went on to win.
It was an illusion that Secret Sham had gone quickly in the early part. He did run along faster in the second 400m, then steadied the ship from the 800m to a point around 500m out where he got going again.
That slowing on the bend might normally have been a great race shape for Able Friend, who would have made ground cheaply there to be in striking range but in this case, Christophe Soumillon was a factor.
Soumillon, on Giant Treasure, again showed why he is at the front of any discussion of the world's best jockeys, as he refused to go to the rail at any point in the race, even though it was always available. He left a vacant position inside Giant Treasure for the entire race and, despite having drawn a gate inside Moreira, he dictated that Moreira had the choice of spending a fair bit of the race wide or back and inside him. Joao chose the lesser of two evils, though neither choice would have been his first pick.
And when Joao would have liked to be coming two wide and creeping forward approaching the final bend, ready to launch, he didn't have the option. Back inside Giant Treasure's heels, the option he did have was to be staring into the backside of Dan Excel, who was going nowhere, and waiting for him to get out of the way. When the inside did open up and Able Friend went there, Soumillon no longer had any power over Joao, he brought his grey out and just didn't have the horse to win the race but his ride was an assist in Able Friend's defeat. Meanwhile, the leaders had run clear.
At the end of the day, Able Friend also rated down on his first-up win but that's not entirely a shock - his Premier Bowl win was the first time Able Friend had encountered a "gut-busting" run fresh during his career. He was forced to carry his big weight in a very fast race and to run his final 800m in 44.04 seconds in order to win it. That's a decent hit out for a horse who had not run for four months.
This isn't being Mr Clever after the ball. There was no certainty it would flatten him for his second run, going up 400m in distance a month later, but the possibility, however large or small you wanted to call it, was out there and that was the way he raced.
He still broke 22 seconds for the run home, giving a few pounds away to most, and it was a better performance, for example, than his 'flat' run last season in the Chairman's Trophy, the notable difference being that he won that one.
At his best, Able Friend would have overcome the hurdles set for him by Soumillon's ride and the wavering tempo. Had he not had those hurdles in front of him, even short of his A-game, he still would have won.
The combination of both, however, was too much.
Still, it is worth bearing in mind, that even Able Friend's performance on Saturday would just about see him scrape home in the average Hong Kong Mile.
We are just expecting to see the better version of him on December 13, now that this run is out of his system.