There have been plenty of words used to describe Maurice – monster, beast, champion – but vulnerable? Surely not for a horse that looks indestructible and races accordingly, yet connections say Japan’s horse of the year won’t be at full fitness for Sunday’s Group One Yasuda Kinen.
You have to look hard to find a chink in Maurice’s muscular armour. Noriyuki Hori’s wonder horse has won seven straight since joining his stable two years ago, four at Group One level and the last two being imperious displays at Sha Tin, firstly in December’s Hong Kong Mile and then early last month in the Champions Mile.
The five-year-old returns to his homeland seemingly approaching his peak but also via a less-than-ideal preparation, having spent a month in isolation in the quarantine centre adjacent to Tokyo racecourse following the Champions Mile because of a rule that states a horse must stay in one place for at least three weeks when returning to Japan from overseas.
“If we had one more week I would say he would be 100 per cent, but at the moment he is around 80 or 90 per cent,” Hori’s assistant Masanori Watanabe explained after Maurice assuaged some concerns about his health with a solid piece of work on the Tokyo turf.
More than 30 members of the local racing media were left disappointed when Hori was a no-show at the post-trackwork press conference – the master trainer having rushed off to watch another of his superstars work, with Duramente galloping later at Miho Training Centre, 125 kilometres from Fuchu.
The noise out of the Maurice camp hasn’t been positive in the last week, with reports that the horse hadn’t done as well since returning from Sha Tin, and while the media might have been disappointed by Hori’s absence, they had plenty to run with after the stable spokesman delivered an honest assessment of the horse’s progress.
“It was very new to him that he had to go through so much transportation, he lost some shine in his coat so I am sure he felt a certain amount of stress,” Watanabe said.
“We looked out for his health, firstly, and I would say that was the most difficult part. It was difficult to get the horse settled down being away from home for so long, and if you do anything very strong in terms of training it will just wear him down, so we have been careful not to do too much and just maintain his fitness.
“It did take a certain amount of time to get him back to his form after getting back to Japan. We took care not to do too much and spaced out his hard work. He is improving as the race comes nearer, his breathing was much better than last week, but as I said, to be honest I wish we had another week – then I would say he would be in tip-top form.”
Maurice’s work was by no means taxing, at least by Japanese standards – his last 1,000 metres was covered in 67 seconds, the stallion slowly building up a head of steam from the top of the long Tokyo straight and breezing home the last 200m in 12.4 seconds.
“Our main objective was to see how he had improved compared to last week, and as a result his breathing was much better – Mr Hori expressed the same opinion, so we are satisfied,” Watanabe said.
Maurice faces a stellar field on Sunday including Real Steel, winner of the Dubai Turf at Meydan at his last start, as well as Hong Kong’s lone raider Contentment, runner-up to Hori’s superstar in the Champions Mile.
Trainer John Size was on hand to watch Contentment move through some typically leisurely work on the inner dirt track and is pleased, although not surprised, at how the five-year-old is handling his first trip abroad.
“We thought he would be a good traveller because he has an extremely good temperament, he is very quiet and he doesn’t have the normal range of problems a racehorse would have,” Size said.