Werther, the highest-rated horse in Hong Kong last year and joint seventh highest in the world, will need to see off new rivals as well as old foes if he is to win Sunday's HK$4 million G2 BOCHK Jockey Club Cup (2000m) at Sha Tin Racecourse, but trainer John Moore is confident his former Horse of the Year is still the king of Hong Kong's ten-furlong division.
"He's showing me that he's still as good as he ever was," Moore said of his three-time G1 winner.
Exactly a year ago, Werther was recovering from a setback that forced his absence from this race and the G1 Longines Hong Kong Cup. Moore, currently eighth in the world trainer's rankings, is aiming to peak the 6-year-old for this year's edition of the latter contest in three weeks' time, but he still expects a big run this weekend.
"He's had no setbacks and hasn't put a foot wrong in his preparation, but he's not fully fit for this race on Sunday. I want to stress that the grand final is three weeks away," Moore said. "But, even though he's going in just slightly underdone, in my opinion, he's still the one to beat."
Werther's three wins from four starts at the course and distance include scores in the 2016 BMW Hong Kong Derby and G1 AP QEII Cup, and last season's G1 Hong Kong Gold Cup. That QEII Cup win, ranked as his best career performance, was achieved on a wet track and Moore is hoping the heavens might open again between now and race time.
"If it rains, he grows another leg! If we get some rain on Saturday to give at least some cushion, well, he's lengths better when there's cut in the ground," the handler said.
The New Zealand-bred galloper enjoyed a fine pipe-opener for the season when sixth in the G2 Sha Tin Trophy Handicap over a mile on 22 October.
"He ran well, but he didn't have the blinkers on, so he probably didn't show up as forward as he has in previous first-up runs," jockey Tommy Berry said. "But he was hitting the line really well and his trackwork's been good since. He galloped on Thursday morning and he really enjoyed that cushion we had in the track then.
Werther is set to meet last year's Jockey Club Cup winner. Secret Weapon, a horse he has always defeated, as well as some of Hong Kong's rising stars - Nassa, Time Warp and Gold Mount. The Tavistock gelding will concede a 5lb penalty to each of his seven rivals on Sunday.
"I'm not worried about the five-pound penalty; he's the best horse in the race. At the weights, he should be winning the race. He only has to do what he's done before," Moore said.
Gold Mount is the only one of those three emerging rivals to have encountered Werther. That was in last season's G1 Champions & Chater Cup (2400m), which Werther won with the less experienced Gold Mount fifth. Nassa and Time Warp, meanwhile, sprang into contention for top honours with a dramatic one-two in the G3 Sa Sa Ladies' Purse Handicap (1800m) two weeks ago.
"I would be confident he can put those younger horses in their place," Berry said. "Werther's shown in the past that he's a high-quality horse and one of the best in Hong Kong. There are some nice horses coming through, but he's in good form, and, even though he's not 100 percent yet, he's not far off. He'll be hard to beat."
Nassa's flying late sprint to mug the front-running Time Warp last time out was one of the Hong Kong season's most thrilling moments so far. Chad Schofield partnered the Tony Millard-trained runner that day and is looking forward to reuniting.
"Nassa really impressed me," Schofield said of the South African G1 place-getter. "There was a lot of hype about him before that, but in his runs up to then he found a lot of trouble, so it was good to have things go his way, get him to the outside and we could eventually see what he's got. He showed a fantastic turn of acceleration and a great finish.
"He's an exciting horse. I rode him on Sunday morning and he feels well. He's taken the run nicely and I'm excited to ride him again."
Nassa carried 115lb for that narrow win, 8lb less than Time Warp, and has risen 18 points in the ratings to a mark of 105.
"Of course, he had bottom-weight the other day when he won but the turn of acceleration he showed me was something that only a top horse can do. I can't wait for the weekend," Schofield said.
Nash Rawiller, meanwhile, is hopeful that Secret Weapon can return to the form that captured this race 12 months ago and carried him to second place behind Maurice in the G1 Longines Hong Kong Cup.
"He's just taking a little longer to get his fitness this time around, but he feels good, he's as well as he's ever felt in terms of his wellbeing. Going back up to 2000 metres is a plus, but he's going to come on for the run and should improve going into the Hong Kong Cup."
The Jockey Club Cup also features Harbour Master, Doyeni and G1 Grand Prix de Paris winner Helene Charisma.
The BOCHK Jockey Club Cup is one of three G2 features on Sunday, alongside the BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Mile and BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Sprint (1200m), which are the prime lead-up races to the HK$ 84.5 million Longines Hong Kong International Races at Sha Tin on Sunday, 10 December.