By: David Morgan
Able Friend will be retired from racing and will parade in front of his fans at Sha Tin racecourse on Sunday afternoon, 28 May, during a Farewell Ceremony to honour his outstanding career.
The brilliant Shamardal gelding raced in the famous black and old gold-trimmed silks of the late Dr. Cornel Li and was at one time the world’s top-rated horse. A superstar with a powerful turn-of-pace, Able Friend achieved the highest-rating by any galloper in the history of Hong Kong horseracing, was the world champion sprinter in 2015, Hong Kong’s Horse of the Year and Champion Miler, and a four-time Group 1 winner.
“He was the equal of any horse on the planet at his peak,” John Moore, Able Friend’s trainer, said. “He’ll be known as a legend here, he’s earned his place in Hong Kong folklore as that strapping, big chestnut with the electrifying turn-of-foot. The public really took to him, he had them in awe with some of the things he did. He just obliterated the best here in Hong Kong.
“It was great that this horse came to Dr. Li,” Moore continued. “He would be any owner’s dream, a horse of that calibre, and Dr. Li was a true horseman - he knew his bloodstock, he loved his racing and he deserved to own a horse like Able Friend, a standout champion.
“Personally, it was a great privilege for me to have had the opportunity to be involved with Able Friend - to identify him, to see him go from provincial racing to being, at one time, the world’s highest-rated horse, reaching that all-time high rating (for a Hong Kong horse) of 127. It was an honour to be given that stewardship, to guide him through his career - it was a dream. While we’ll miss him, I’m sure when he gets back to the farm where he was born he’ll enjoy a lovely retirement - probably eye-balling sheep and cattle!”
Able Friend will retire to the Ramsey family’s picturesque Turangga Farm in New South Wales where he was foaled, his dam being the Volksraad mare Ponte Piccolo. He ends his stellar career with a record of 12 wins from 24 starts in Hong Kong for earnings of HK$61,333,624. Standouts among his many highlights include a knock-out win in the 2014 G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile, a dominant score in the 2015 G1 Champions Mile, and, in that same year, two astonishing performances in the G1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup (1400m) and the HKG2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m).
Joao Moreira, who rode the Australian-bred 16 times for seven wins, including each of his G1 scores, is on record as saying that Able Friend is probably the best horse he has ever ridden.
“He means a lot to me because he gave me my first Group 1 win in Hong Kong (the HKG1 Hong Kong Classic Mile), he gave me my first international Group 1 race here,” Moreira said.
“Obviously very few horses here have given me what he has. I’m not talking about prize money, but I’m talking about pride,” he continued. “To be associated with such a nice horse that has had such a great career, like him, I can’t ask for much more. Everything that has come from him has been very special, he has a place in my heart and I’m very happy that he is going to have a beautiful life in a paddock.”
A giant in build and ability
Moore has often referred to the horse as “Big Red”; his stable’s mafoos (stable staff) affectionately called him “Dai Bun Cheung”, a Cantonese term that translates, thereabouts, to “Big Elephant”.
Able Friend, so languid and ambling in demeanour around Sha Tin, is well-known for taking a longish-to-long pause each morning upon arrival at the track. No amount of shoving or coaxing by jockeys and track riders ever impelled the sometimes 1300lb galloper to move on - the champ moved when the champ was ready.
Moore’s bloodstock arm purchased the hulking chestnut for A$550,000 out of the 2011 Inglis Easter Yearling Sale - he went through the ring as Lot 409. Able Friend entered training with Michael, Wayne and John Hawkes in Australia, and debuted at Rosehill in a 1200m maiden on 6 November, 2012, sporting the silks of Moore’s long-time patron Dr. Li. The raw three-year-old placed second under Jay Ford but opened his win account 16 days later at Wyong, landing a Class 1 handicap for three-year-olds under Corey Brown.
He made a winning start to his Hong Kong career, an easy Class 3 score at 1200m in June, 2013, with Tommy Berry in the plate. That was it for his first term and he was next seen that October when running third in a 1400m Class 2 under Karis Teetan. From that point on, Able Friend ascended the ranks with impressive rapidity.
Two more Class 2 wins followed in November and December, and then, with Moreira up top for the first time, Able Friend claimed a brilliant win in the first leg of Hong Kong’s Four-Year-Old Classic Series, the Hong Kong Classic Mile.
“I had to pick between Able Friend and Designs On Rome for the Hong Kong Classic Mile in 2014,” Moreira recalled. “I chose Able Friend because I thought he had something special. He won that race, but after that, he got beaten twice by Designs On Rome.
“What I’m trying to say is, even if I couldn’t win the Derby, even if I couldn’t win the Classic Cup, I was still very confident in him because I felt like he was a very special horse, one who could win one of the international races. He didn’t let me down - he was so good in the Hong Kong Mile later that year.”
Dr. Li’s gelding was expected to dominate the Four-Year-Old Classic Series after his Classic Mile win, but, stretched beyond his optimum distance and faced with a formidable middle-distance champion in the form of stablemate Designs On Rome, that season’s Horse of the Year, he placed second in both the Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m) and Hong Kong Derby (2000m).
Back on track in the HKG2 Chairman’s Trophy (1600m) in April, 2014, he was a hot favourite to win the G1 Champions Mile. But, despite his 1.7 odds, the future champ, fatigued at the end of a tough campaign, had to settle for second behind the South African star Variety Club.
Reaching a world peak
The 2014/15 season saw Able Friend reach the peak of his ability and earn honours as Hong Kong’s Horse of the Year and Champion Miler. Six wins in succession included a four and a quarter-length demolition of a top-class field in the December, 2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile. That earned a rating of 127, which placed him equal third in the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ World’s Best Racehorse Rankings. It was a new benchmark for Hong Kong horses.
And after unleashing a brilliant burst of speed to win the G1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup three months later, Able Friend found himself at the head of the World’s Best list from March until early June.
Following a decisive Champions Mile win that May, Able Friend posted the one disappointing effort of his career. It came in the G1 Queen Anne Stakes (1600m) at Royal Ascot. Stewed up in the preliminaries, the usually relaxed gelding was damp with sweat by the time he reached the starting gate and ran home a listless sixth behind Solow.
But, despite that journey to England, Able Friend returned first-up for the 2015/16 season in great heart. Burdened with top-weight of 133lb and over a distance short of his best, Able Friend stormed fast and late to win the HKG2 Premier Bowl Handicap (1200m) under Teetan. Again, it was a performance that placed him high up the World’s Best Rankings, the 125 rating being equal to his Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup win; in fact, that effort ensured that he ended the year as the world’s top-rated sprinter.
A shock defeat followed in the G2 Jockey Club Mile when third behind Beauty Flame, a horse he had dismissed with ease each time they had met previously. And he was third next start, too, behind Japan’s superstar Maurice in the G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile. Able Friend had looked the winner in that latter contest when sweeping past Maurice early in the stretch but faltered on his run.
Injury, return, retirement
Within weeks, Able Friend was found to have suffered an unusual injury, low down in his off-fore, described on the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s website as a “Right front deep digital flexor tendon injury”.
He left Sha Tin to recuperate in Australia. Nine months later he was back racing at Sha Tin. But in four starts this season he failed to add to his win tally, the closest being his last, a fine three-quarter-length second to stablemate Helene Paragon in the G1 Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup. Whilst retaining G1 ability, the sheer brilliance of his pre-injury career seemed to be missing.
Able Friend was found to be lame in his off-fore on Thursday, 16 March, prompting his scratching from an intended start in a Class 1 handicap at Sha Tin three days later. An MRI scan the next morning revealed a recurrence of the tendon problem that had side-lined him previously.
The Farewell Ceremony for the late Dr. Li’s star galloper will be held after race three at Sha Tin on Sunday, 28 May.
Able Friend cruises past the post after unleashing a brilliant burst to win the 2015 Queen��s Silver Jubilee Cup.
Dr. Cornel Li and his family with Joao Moreira and John Moore at the presentation ceremony for the 2014 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
Joao Moreira shares his affection for Able Friend after the Queen��s Silver Jubilee Cup.
Able Friend has a special bond with Hong Kong��s racing fans.