When defending champion Flintshire cruised up on the outside, going best of all, he appeared on the verge of a repeat victory in Sunday’s Hong Kong Vase (G1). But Highland Reel found plenty under a Ryan Moore drive, outkicked Flintshire in deep stretch, and made history twice over. Aside from becoming the first three-year-old colt to win the Vase, the Galileo blueblood gave trainer Aidan O’Brien an overdue first victory in the Hong Kong International Races.
Earlier this season, O’Brien described Highland Reel as babyish and “one for next year.” But international ventures have been the making of him. After a resounding, wire-to-wire victory in the Secretariat (G1) at Arlington, he wasn’t disgraced when fifth to Golden Horn and Found back home in the Irish Champion (G1). Then Highland Reel was off on his travels again, finishing a respectable third versus his elders in the Cox Plate (G1) at Australia’s Moonee Valley.
In the Vase, you could say that Highland Reel proved that he’s becoming a man – one that his “uncle” Elvstroem, another decorated globetrotter, would be proud to call his nephew. And Ballydoyle’s vacancy in the elite older male ranks, so noticeable in 2015, will be filled in 2016.
Highland Reel has the tactical speed to go forward if necessary, and so it played out in the initial stages of the Vase. Then longshot Harbour Master, next to last early, made an audacious move to the lead down the backstretch. Highland Reel was briefly in danger of being pocketed by Cirrus des Aigles, but when the old campaigner moved forward to chase the new leader, Moore expertly took the chance to angle a little off the fence.
All the while, Flintshire was traveling conspicuously well just off the pace. Had the Juddmonte veteran gone on to win, you’d justifiably claim that he looked like the winner throughout. Moore was already getting vigorous on Highland Reel as Flintshire swept alongside, poised to pounce in the stretch.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Highland Reel, who took a few strides to get into gear, began to draw back level with Flintshire. And then a few strides later, he was pulling clear. Zipping his final 400 meters in a field-best :22.78 – a sparkling finish to an about 1 1/2-mile event –Highland Reel crossed the wire 1 1/2 lengths the best.
Flintshire has made a career of Group 1 placings, so he serves as a reliable yardstick for the merit of Highland Reel’s performance. The Andre Fabre charge may have even run better in defeat than in winning a lesser renewal of this race in 2014. Conceding five pounds to his younger rival, Flintshire turned in the second-fastest final split in :23.04.
The other sophomores in the Vase, Dariyan and Ming Dynasty, performed well to rally for third and fourth, respectively, off an unsuitably slow pace and tough trips.
The Aga Khan’s homebred Dariyan was the victim of race-riding by Pat Smullen aboard Cannock Chase (according to trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre). Although unable to emulate his dam Daryakana’s victory here in 2009, the lightly raced colt promises to have a lucrative 2016. Ming Dynasty was rank early and had to check off heels, but closed belatedly to complete the exotics for France. He’s another with few miles on the clock and long on upside for Mikel Delzangles.
Helene Happy Star fared best of the locals in fifth. Yet judging by his proximity to the pace, and getting first run on longshot Harbour Master, his failure to finish closer can be read as a knock against him. The same can’t be said of older stablemate Dominant, who was completely unsuited by the race shape and wound up sixth. Australia’s Preferment was a fair seventh, considering the lack of pace help, and his coming here as an addendum to his Spring Carnival.
Cirrus des Aigles retreated to 10th, and as he nears his 10th birthday, the warrior is telegraphing that his body just isn’t up to it anymore. The real disappointment of the race was Canadian International (G1) winner Cannock Chase, who never got involved and trudged in 11th. The inconsistent Helene Super Star decided that today was a “famine” day and trailed home last of 13.
Selected quotes from Hong Kong Jockey Club
Jockey Ryan Moore on Highland Reel: “He did it all very easily, he’s turned into a good horse. He’s improved immensely since the start of the year.
“He’s had a hard schedule but he keeps getting better. When Flintshire came by me I thought I was in trouble but as soon as that horse folded a little bit he dug in and the way he’s improved through the year, it’s quite something.
“I was always happy to let him bowl along at his own pace and if someone else wanted to lead that was fine but he gets away very well, he’s very professional. He was going quite nicely down the back then Harbour Master wanted to get on with it and I had to change the plan a little bit.
“I got into him and got him balanced in the straight and as soon as he got into a battle he really wanted it. Flintshire is a very high-class colt and takes some beating in these races, so I think it was a very good performance from my horse.
“He’s had plenty of experience around the world and he’s only a three-year-old but he’s a hardened three-year-old now.”
Racing Manager Teddy Grimthorpe on runner-up Flintshire: “Absolutely no excuses, he has run very well.”
Jockey Christophe Soumillon on third Dariyan: “I had a horse on my outside leaning on me the whole way which did not help me. Otherwise, I would have been up there with Flintshire.”
Jockey Pat Smullen on Cannock Chase, 11th: “The stop start pace didn’t suit him. He’s a horse that wants a nice pace to run at. He was on and off the bridle the whole way. The pace just kept steadying and then quickening. He just needs a true run race.”
Photos courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club.