Beauty Flame Conquers "The Beast"

Last weekend's Sha Tin meeting was rocked when reigning Horse of the Year and 1.4 favorite Able Friend finished third in the Jockey Club Sprint, the final major preparation for December's Hong Kong Mile.

In the days since his defeat, everything from him having lost his luster since his Royal Ascot defeat to concerns about his chances come the December feature have been echoed both in print and on social media. 

In reality, Able Friend's defeat was nothing more than a typical example of the cliche "pace makes the race" and perhaps stable tactics gone wrong. 

Slow out of the gates, Able Friend was forced to settle further than back is typical for him over this distance, while stablemate Secret Sham was pushed forward. Secret Sham is Able Friend's most reliable pacemaker, but while he has tactical speed over 1,600m, he's not overly fast. For this reason, he's by far most effective in aiding his stablemate's chances when he's pressing the leaders, ensuring honest fractions particularly in the middle sections of the race.

These tactics were used perfectly in last year's HKG2 Chairman's Trophy -- one of three races in which Beauty Flame finished second to Able Friend. This time around, however, Beauty Flame reversed the score, sitting second behind Secret Sham. When leading over 1,600m, Secret Sham is a blatant non-stayer against these types, leaving Beauty Flame in the box seat, able to control his own fate after only 200m of the race had been run. 

At that same point, Able Friend was near the rear of the field and at the first call, he found himself over eight lengths behind the leaders. 

It was in the third section (1,400m-1,200m), however, where Able Friend's race was lost as the leaders were allowed to get away with murder out in front -- eventual 1-2 Beauty Flame and Contentment clocking 23.67 and 23.63, respectively. However, unlike "sit-and-sprint" type races where Able Friend's far superior turn of foot would typically see him through regardless, the faster nature of the race at the start had resulted in such a strung out field that Able Friend in seventh place still had five lengths to make up.

From that point on, it was "garbage time", as we say in American sports. Able Friend finished the race in 21.87, the second fastest final sectional of the race and over 0.4s faster than the 1-2 finishers. In just 200m, he made up three and a half lengths and did so along the rail -- a position from which he is clearly not as effective, mainly due to his large build. 

Whether or not Able Friend will win the Hong Kong Mile remains to be seen, but this performance showed exactly how the best horse can be beaten without running significantly under par. This is particularly the case in a jurisdiction like Hong Kong, where pace plays an integral role in turf racing -- which, for the most part, differs from Northern Hemisphere racing over the same surface.  

The lesson to be taken from Able Friend's weekend fiasco is that when analyzing form, don't look for the best horse, per se. Instead, look for the best horse given the conditions of the race. The crux of these races are about the match-ups of the horses in the field and the race shape created as a result. 

Or, in the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis, maybe it's as simple as, "Nobody beats Beauty Flame four times!" 

Either way, Able Friend is still clearly the one to beat in December and this result won't cause me to think otherwise.

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