Maurice, an absolute champion
LONGINES Hong Kong Cup and Hong Kong Mile
MAURICE rolled into the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races history yesterday when weaving through a sea of trouble to add the Hong Kong Cup over 2,000m to last year's win in the Mile.
In doing so, he completed a Group 1 double on the day for trainer Noriyuki Hori and rewarded the coolest head at a heaving Sha Tin, big-race pilot Ryan Moore.
Midway through the HK$25 million (S$4.6 million) feature, those who had placed their faith in Japan's 2015 Horse of the Year would not have felt good about Maurice's prospects.
While Yutaka Take opened up a significant break on the field aboard last year's winner A Shin Hikari, Moore found himself three from the back and with no obvious route off the rail.
But, turning for home, eventual runner-up Secret Weapon drifted wide and Maurice loomed up to A Shin Hikari's shoulder before cutting around him and storming to a breathtaking three-length victory.
Moore, the recently crowned LONGINES World's Best Jockey, was always confident in the horse underneath him.
"Fortunately, there was good pace in the race and, halfway down the back, I thought it was setting up nicely for him and it was just a matter of finding the room," said Moore, who was securing a second Cup following Snow Fairy's success in 2010 and a 20th Group 1 score for 2016.
"As soon as he got room and I put him into gear, he just let down exceptionally well. He got to the leader early and then he was just easing up really. He has improved every time I've ridden him."
As well as announcing the abundant talent of his trainer, Hori, to the wider world, Maurice enjoyed an international coming-of-age at this meeting 12 months ago.
Moore was in no doubt that this success - almost certainly the five-year-old son of Screen Hero's final racecourse appearance - was another step forward in terms of performance and it will present plenty of late food for thought when the world's official handicappers meet to decide the LONGINES World's Best Racehorse later this week.
Asked what it felt like to be atop Maurice, Moore said simply: "It's a lot of fun. Hori said to me on the way out, 'Are you OK?' and I told him 'I'm always OK when I'm riding Maurice.'
"He's a brilliant horse. He is very good at a mile (1,600m) but he is possibly better at 10 furlongs (2,000m). He has improved, he is a big strong horse and he has got better with racing. He has been a pleasure to ride."
Hori became the first foreign-based trainer to record a Hong Kong International Races double, following SATONO CROWN's late rally at the expense of the Moore-ridden Highland Reel in the Vase.
Typically he was keen to deflect any talk of his own personal glory.
"The horse, the jockey and the staff all tried very hard so it is a mutual effort and it feels great," said Hori. "This horse really does seem to love Hong Kong but we get a lot of support from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. It is a team effort, Japan and Hong Kong together."
Hori wouldn't be drawn on whether Maurice has run his last race, teasing the gathered media in answer to questions of his stable-star's imminent retirement.
"That's what they have been writing in the newspapers anyway," he said.
The build-up to the race had been dominated by the prospective showdown between Maurice and A Shin Hikari and, even halfway up the straight it still looked possible that Yutaka Take might have just enough horse to repeat last year's solo effort, having been six lengths clear turning out of the back straight.
But, as Maurice and his pursuers drew upsides, A Shin Hikari's strides shortened and he faded late to beat only two home.
"He showed his race but it was a bit disappointing," said Take, of what is likely to be A Shin Hikari's swansong. - HKJC