NYT

By DUNCAN JEPSON

HONG KONG — The starting bell rang. The three big men in front of us jumped to their feet, obscuring our view. After a few seconds they took their seats again and we saw my father-in-law’s horse, Able One, in second place, a length or two behind the leader, Flying Blue. Two or three years ago this had been a perfect place for him from which to win. But now, surely this was just a tease.

This was the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s marquee event, International Race Day. The afternoon’s races featured many of the world’s most talented horses, jockeys and trainers.

A year earlier, Able One, then 8 years old, had been a favorite in the race — almost an outside favorite at his age — but he was pulled at the starting gate. This year it seemed hopeless, at least on paper. His trainer, John Moore, last year’s Hong Kong Champion Trainer, would say later, “At this age Able One should have been just sleeping and eating.” Although he walked with his usual relaxed stride, he had endured injuries to three of his four legs and had had hip problems that would have finished most horses.

“It’s a lot from John Moore just to have the horse still racing,” the race commentator had said 20 minutes earlier.

Moore had also trained one of the current favorites, Xtension, and had logically allocated his number one jockey to him, asking his second, Jeff Lloyd, a sprightly 50-year-old, still looking for his first big international win, to ride Able One. It was an unlikely combination for a win, and Moore hadn’t even tipped Able One for a place.

By the time my father-in-law, brother-in-law and I sat down in the stands for the start, the odds were a long 66-1.

To pick a winner, one has to understand horses, and, I am reliably informed by people in the know, my father-in-law understands them better than most.

Horses, like people, can be simple or complicated. Some are nervous if crowded and cautious to take the lead even if they have the legs. Others are just bursting to run, take the lead and are always happy to go neck-to-neck. Relying on the form guides is for the punters like me; identifying a winner is for those who know and understand the horse. And my father-in-law told me many times that Able One loves to race, that it comes from his heart.

Into the first of the two bends, Able One held second. The gaps started to close as they rounded the second onto the straight, Xtension and the pack tightening round him. Chasing a tiring leader, those who knew Able One knew he would kick up a gear — if his legs would let him, his heart would carry him.

At the 300-meter mark he stormed past the leader, who was already dropping back. Then jockey and horse moved up to that higher gear available to only a few great athletes, where age no longer seems to matter.

The old legs stretched faster, three injuries between them. Able One held his lead into the final 200 meters, and we waited to learn whether punters who had bet on form would triumph over the few who know the substance of a winner.

The noise was deafening. In the final 100 meters, the lead was a length and a half, but the favorites were closing fast. The lead disappeared to a body and then to a neck. Then my vision was blocked again by the big guys in front.

On the podium, Moore admitted this had never been his plan. “He was supposed to be the pacemaker. When you see a nine year old doing that there is always hope for everybody.”

Duncan Jepson, a lawyer and filmmaker, recently published his first novel, “All the Flowers in Shanghai.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/opinion/the-substance-of-a-winner.html