Even as he declared champion miler Able Friend back to his best for Sunday’s HK$23 million Longines Hong Kong Mile and ready to thrill the world again, trainer John Moore said he welcomed the serious competition of this year’s international races.
Hong Kong-trained horses have won 22 of the last 40 December international races run at Sha Tin - 21 of 30 if you put aside the results in the less suitable 2,400-metre Vase - and local horses have not lost the Mile since 2005.
It’s an awesome “Fortress Sha Tin” record but Moore said the depth of competition this year was greater, the tasks more difficult and then said that’s the way it has to be to have real relevance.
“I take my hat off to the Jockey Club. They’ve invited some really smart horses this year, some serious competition across the board and that’s what we all want to see in these internationals, not a benefit for the locals,” Moore said.
“We want to win, sure, but we want to see where we stand in the world.
“For instance, if we want Able Friend to be acknowledged as one of the top three on the planet - which we think he is - then he has to beat the best and he will need to be right on his game against the Japanese horse, Maurice.
“I watched his replays and the other day he was trapped deep and overraced and he still got to the line so strongly in Kyoto. That has got to be a top horse to do that.”
But Moore believes the best of Able Friend is good enough to triumph and, more importantly, that Sunday will see the Horse of the Year at his best.
“The first up run obviously took more out of him than we thought at the time. You always worry with a horse like this when he is beaten, but we put it down to that second run syndrome. His work today had Joao Moreira beaming and he seems to be back at his top,” Moore said.
“He needed to freshen up from that last run in the Jockey Club Mile and has done everything we’ve expected on the track.
“We know if the right horse comes on Sunday, he’s the one to beat and there won’t be a fitter horse in the race.
“The draw in 10 is fine. We know he’ll go back and find some cover and I think he’s in the same form as last year, but I also believe this year’s race is overall much better than last year’s, so it won’t be that easy.”
But the confidence was lagging with Moore’s other defending champion in the Cup, Designs On Rome, due to the limited preparation Moore has been able to give him after joint surgery in the summer break.
“The jury is out. He had to go first-up to the 1,600m in the Jockey Club Mile and finished off faster than Able Friend, but I would love to have another run under his belt going in to the 2,000m,” Moore said.
“He seems to have returned very well but second-up into this race, he could be the one subject to second-run syndrome this time.”
And jockey Joao Moreira had similar observations on both counts.
“Able Friend, he burned my backside when I worked him today, I have to be confident,” he laughed. “Designs On Rome, though - last year three races before this one when he won, and this year only one race, which is a concern.
“It gives me no pleasure to say it, maybe he will be a touch underdone but he is very talented and proven at this level if he brings his best.