By Hans Ebert
Silent Witness or Able Friend? What about Viva Pataca? We can debate as to who’s Hong Kong’s greatest horse, and still not come to any real answer. We each have our own memories and these colour our thinking.
Having said this, in the “modern era” of Hong Kong racing, Able Friend towers head and shoulders above the rest. He might not have won overseas, but he took on all foreign invaders on home soil and beat them fair and square. That is until it was clear on December 13 and the running of the 2015 Hong Kong Mile when he appeared ready to cruise past the then Japanese rising star Maurice, but that extra zip just wasn’t there. Sadly, that’s the race I will remember most about Able Friend- the big one where he came to win, but ended running third.
On the positive side, that race reminded this fan just what a gutsy and brilliant horse he was when right- Big Red, The Beast From The East, two nicknames that didn’t come anywhere close to his given name of Able Friend, who was purchased after winning a Maiden in Wyong.
So, when it was announced that there would be a special farewell for Able Friend at Shatin last Sunday, I winced. Like those laborious presentation ceremonies with everybody being herded for a “happy photo of this happy occasion”, my mind went into brain freeze.
Okay, I thought, Able Friend will be paraded around the paddock area, and given a respectable send-off for “services rendered”, and then what?
What was shown on television sandwiched between races wasn’t exactly a Cecil B De Mille of a production. Actually, if channel surfing or taking a break waiting for the upcoming race, this farewell- this tribute- would have been missed. Able Friend deserved better. And if this Grand Farewell could not have been presented better, it should not have taken place.
What this fan of the horse will remember about the occasion would be the horse being paraded around, a group of people shuffling about not quite knowing what to do, and with only regular rider Joao Moreira taking an active role in the proceedings by straightening out his old friend’s saddle cloth.
Before all this awkwardness, there was the screening of the obligatory video highlighting the great galloper’s career over some “grand” music that made Mahler’s Fifth sound like “We Will Rock You.”
Apparently, the music was specifically chosen by Charmaine Li, daughter of owner Dr Cornel Li, who, quite correctly, always had the final say in how the “brand” should be protected and not commercialised. You pay the rent, you own the house. You buy the house, you own it forever.
With Dr Li, a wonderful supporter of Hong Kong racing, and extremely well-known for all the “Able” horses that he owned before his passing a few months earlier, one can understand how his immediate family wanted to see this moment presented last Sunday. But this is also where it all became a confusing hodge podge for those watching with everyone involved left shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
Dr Li had always wanted to share the exploits of Able Friend with Hong Kong racing fans. If not mistaken, he always referred to Able Friend as being “Hong Kong’s horse.”
Watching the video followed by the HKJC Harlem Shuffle, one couldn’t help wonder if this occasion was meant to be a fond farewell to Able Friend, a tribute to Dr Cornel Li, or something in between. Anything done in half measures never works. Like any idea created by committee, it falls flat, and is left with Peggy Lee warbling, “Is that all there is?”
Whatever was concocted for Able Friend and Dr Cornell Li last Sunday was not a celebration nor a Feel Good Moment. It was a vapid waste of time. Both owner and horse deserved better. Deserved greater respect. Deserved a better send off. And if this could not have happened, it should not have taken place. Simple as that.
Thankfully, I have an original painting of Able Friend by Australian artist Janet Hammill and autographed by Joao Moreira. It takes pride of place in the Racing Corner of my living room. This will do me fine.
What would you have done? An amazing horse, deserving of a huge and special farewell.
I recall the day Tie the Knot was retired. The AJC’s farewell was pathetic, a stroll around the historic mounting yard in front of the majestic Officials Stand and then a quiet canter up and down the straight. I remember it all but what I remembered most was my mate Guy Walter, standing as a lonely figure watching his treasured horse in his final moment at Royal Randwick. Guy was lost, he was bottling the raw emotion, perhaps the type of emotion that a father experiences when his champion sportsman son retires . I know he had a tear in his eye, he was sad. He knew and we all knew that this was the end of the road for the mighty horse. Was that captured? No. It was lost.
Racing is a special product, unique in many ways because you have lots of stakeholders from owners, fans, jockeys, track riders, trainers and the battling old strapper or stable hand. Remember Phar Lap and Tommy Woodcock.
I don’t know why race clubs can’t switch in to the raw emotion, the deeper feelings that run between a man and a horse. Perhaps they should start to concentrate on something other than prize money!.