Able Friend Image supplied by The Hong Kong Jockey Club

Able Friend
Image supplied by The Hong Kong Jockey Club

It was a case of haunting déjà vu for one past winner and a welcome change for another as Able Friend (gate 14) and Peniaphobia (stall one) experienced contrasting fortunes at an intriguing barrier draw for the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races today (Thursday, December 8).

John Moore-trained Able Friend drew the widest of 10 runners in the 2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile in a race that stamped the giant chestnut gelding as a superstar. He swept down the outside to win by a widening four and a quarter lengths that day, but Moore believes Able Friend faces a tough test to replicate that feat two years on.

“I was hoping for a middle gate and that he could get some nice cover,” Moore said immediately after the draw. “From gate 14, he’s going to come back to the rear of the field and his task is going to be set – the task of getting home in a very slick sectional time. His fitness is suspect, so I’m worried.”

Moore was happier with the Mile draw for his second major contender, with Helene Paragon in five, while the trainer also has Joyful Trinity in the HK$23m feature, drawn 11.

“Helene Paragon, he’s drawn the gun gate and he should have won last time,” Moore said. “From that draw Hugh (Bowman) will give him a great ride and given clear running in the straight he’s one of the horses to beat.”

Able Friend was not the only local galloper to draw outside, with last-start 2016 Group 2 Jockey Club Mile (1600m) winner Beauty Only and that race’s 2015 victor Beauty Flame drawing wide in 13 and 12 respectively. Their handler Tony Cruz says each horse’s racing pattern ensures that a perceived bad draw is not a major blow to their chances.

“I really don’t mind,” Cruz said. “Beauty Only will be out the back and Beauty Flame will be leading. Romantic Touch got a good draw in four, so he can take a handy position.”

Cruz’s 2015 LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint victor Peniaphobia had to do it tough to score last year, making all from the outside, but the trainer was clearly relieved to have come up with a different outcome at the draw this year.

“Well, I was hoping for a good draw and we got a good draw!” Cruz laughed. “Gate one is a perfect draw. There is a big difference between one and 14 from the 1200m because they hit the turn pretty quick, so we don’t have to use the horse up as much early as we did last season.

“It’s a big advantage and he’s the fastest horse too, so I’d expect him to be leading them here.”

The LONGINES Hong Kong Sprint proved a bonanza for the locals at this morning’s barrier draw, with Hong Kong representatives occupying six of the seven inside gates – to the horror of visiting French trainer Francois Rohaut, who came up with the outside gate for Group 1 Prix Maurice de Gheest (1300m) winner Signs Of Blessing.

“It is a catastrophe,” he said. “And on top of that, all the Hong Kong horses are drawn on the inside.”

Japanese fancy, Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen (1200m) victor Big Arthur, came up with gate 13 and connections believe the first few moments of the Sprint will prove critical.

“We wanted a middle post position,” said trainer Kenichi Fujioka. “But since he can perform well from an outside post, if he breaks sharply we can overcome the draw.”

Jockey Brett Prebble and trainer Francis Lui wore wide grins after Group 2 Premier Bowl (1200m) winner Lucky Bubbles came up with gate five.

“He’ll be favourite now, you’d think,” Prebble said. “He’s got a great gate and that means we have options. He’s versatile, so he can just settle wherever he is comfortable. From there he’ll get his chance and we’ll see if he’s good enough.”

His Group 2 Jockey Club Sprint (1200m) conqueror Not Listenin’tome drew just inside him in four, to which Moore remarked: “Not Listenin’tome has drawn the gun gate and he’s a fitter horse than last year. There is a lot of speed drawn inside him and he’s going to get the perfect run in behind them.”

Unlike the Sprint, the LONGINES Hong Kong Cup draw has played into the hands of the visitors, with the Japanese raiders in particular satisfied with their gates.

Last year’s winner A Shin Hikari drew barrier one, all but ensuring he will set the early tempo, while his major rival, last year’s Mile victor Maurice, drawn out in gate eight.

“Very good draw,” said A Shin Hikari’s trainer Masanori Sakaguchi. “Actually four to five was my ideal. I just wish he could set the pace and lead the field until the finish.”

Fellow Japanese contender Staphanos drew barrier seven, a gate that pleased assistant trainer Kazuo Fujiwara.

“We wanted the middle and we are about in the middle so that’s good,” he said. “It should be a good post to break from.”

2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Cup winner Designs On Rome has come up with gate six, with trainer Moore believing his fate is in the hands of rider Joao Moreira.

“Designs On Rome has drawn a good gate,” he said. “He always goes back so Joao has to be conscious of how much ground he gives away early.”

The LONGINES Hong Kong Vase is typically a tactical affair, with a long run to the first turn and a muddling tempo through the middle section, but this year’s draw has thrown up a number of intriguing pace possibilities.

Reigning Vase champion Highland Reel came up with post 10, one outside his draw last year, but whereas he set the early tempo 12 months ago, he is likely to face opposition for the lead.

Big Orange is one horse that typically races forward, and trainer Michael Bell says the dual Group 2 Goodwood Cup (3200m) winner is likely to make the running in Sunday’s Vase.

“Lucky seven – that suits,” said Bell. “Big Orange wants a true pace over 2400m and we will definitely be on the pace. And Ryan Moore (on Highland Reel) is too good a jockey to go on a suicide mission by taking us on. Racing is not an exact science but in the normal course of events we will go forward.”

Japanese mare Smart Layer also could be heading for the front after drawing gate 13, according to trainer Ryuji Okubo.

“This horse is a good starter, so I think the draw won’t be an issue,” he said. “If we have a good break, we’ll have a good chance.”

French trainer Corine Barande-Barbe returned for her eighth draw in a row, her first with Vase contender Garlingari, and she was satisfied with gate eight: “The draw is not bad because he won’t get hemmed in from there. I was standing with Carina [Hanson, co-owner of One Foot In Heaven], who got stall four and wanted our number instead.”