Highland Reel was a useful juvenile who became a globetrotting success at three, but as trainer Aidan O’Brien had predicted, he’s even better at four. Boasting the best current formlines in the field, and the historically key angle for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), he figures to be tough to beat.
My Highland Reel scouting report for last year’s Secretariat (G1) covered his earlier career, highlighted by a pair of Glorious Goodwood victories in the 2014 Vintage (G2) and 2015 Gordon (G3) as well as a fine second in the French Derby (G1). Last summer, O’Brien described him as “still a bit babyish and will be one for next year.”
American fans will recall what a “babyish” Highland Reel did to his Secretariat rivals:
After that demolition job, I thought that Highland Reel might come into the discussion for the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland. But his ensuing fifth to Golden Horn and Found in last fall’s Irish Champion (G1) (on unsuitable ground) confirmed the original plan to send him to Australia. With his dam being a multiple Group 1-placed full sister to Elvstroem, a venture Down Under for the Cox Plate (G1) made perfect sense commercially. He ran into a course record-shredding buzzsaw by the name of Winx, though, and settled for third. There was no disgrace either in finishing a length astern of internationally campaigned veteran Criterion, who saved ground on the fence.
Highland Reel continued on his travels for the Hong Kong Vase (G1), his first try at 1 1/2 miles since the Gordon, and proved that this might be his best trip after all by dethroning Flintshire. When defending Vase champion Flintshire headed him in the stretch, Highland Reel repelled him with an even stronger change of gear. According to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, Highland Reel clocked his final 400 meters (about quarter-mile) in :22.78 compared to Flintshire’s :23.04.
That Vase result could be a sneak preview of the Breeders’ Cup Turf. To be sure, it’s nearly 11 months on, Flintshire’s found happiness on the U.S. turf with Chad Brown, and the older Highland Reel will no longer benefit from a weight concession as he did last December. But Highland Reel is arguably a better horse himself at this point, and Flintshire may find him as tough to run down at Santa Anita.
You wouldn’t draw that conclusion from Highland Reel’s first two starts of the season. Opening 2016 in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), he tired to fourth behind the streaking Postponed and Japanese star Duramente. O’Brien doesn’t tend to have his older horses primed for World Cup night, however, so this strikes me as a well-paid day out.
Highland Reel returned to Hong Kong for the QE II Cup (G1) at about 1 1/4 miles, but the yielding ground (and a strange trip that saw him shuffled back) conspired against him in eighth. Although the ground wasn’t ideal in his first start of his European campaign in Royal Ascot’s Hardwicke (G2), Highland Reel battled mightily (despite his rider’s dropping the whip) and just missed to The Queen’s Dartmouth. He appeared to enjoy the return to 1 1/2 miles.
Conditions were much better over the same course and distance in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1), and Highland Reel executed a superb front-running performance in this “Win and You’re In” for the Turf.
It wasn’t the deepest renewal of the King George, but Highland Reel underscored his own personal merit next time, albeit in defeat, in the Juddmonte International (G1). Passed by Postponed at the top of the stretch, Highland Reel stayed on resolutely, drew a bit closer the farther they went in the about 1 5/16-mile test, and finished second.
Highland Reel tried the Irish Champion again, only to catch a yielding course for the second straight year. He was also spent by chasing a rabbit on the softer inside part of the track, making his seventh-place effort forgivable.
Back up to about 1 1/2 miles on a good course for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), Highland Reel was the middle leg of O’Brien’s epic trifecta. He couldn’t outkick Found, but excelled the rest in second.
As the only 2016 Arc loser in the Turf field, Highland Reel owns the key stat in the history of this race. The Arc has been the most productive lead-in to the Turf. Although a reigning Arc winner has yet to win a Breeders’ Cup race, 10 Arc losers have come back that fall to win the Turf.
With his tactical flexibility, Highland Reel will secure a good early position, either on or close to the lead. And unless O’Brien calls an audible and opts for the Turf with Pretty Perfect, there’s no dedicated front runner in the field. Highland Reel could lead them on a merry dance.
A Breeders’ Cup Turf trophy would cap an outstanding curriculum vitae. For that very reason, I’d be surprised if the Coolmore brain trust gave Found another chance to beat him in this spot. She appears headed for a dirt experiment in the Classic (G1), her first preference. It would be an even bigger surprise if Highland Reel switched to his second preference in the Classic.
Photo courtesy of Racing UK via Twitter