Highland Reel photo by Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com
Both Postponed and Highland Reel are attempting to buck trends in the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic (G1).
In Postponed’s case, it’s that no horse has won the Sheema Classic twice. Fantastic Light came close to a repeat in 2001, and the venerable Cirrus des Aigles, the 2012 winner, was runner-up in 2014. Of course, Postponed laughed at the stats last year, according to which no horse coming out of the Dubai City of Gold (G2) turned the double in the Sheema. Not only did he win the Sheema, but he set a course record.
Highland Reel is bumping up against the fact that no reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) winner has captured the Sheema. But context is significant here. The superb St Nicholas Abbey nearly pulled it off for O’Brien in 2012 (and ultimately did win the Sheema in 2013), and Highland Reel is becoming his heir apparent. He resembles “St Nick” more than anyone else on that list of BC Turf winners who lost the next March’s Sheema – i.e., Red Rocks flopped in 2007, Dangerous Midge in 2011, O’Brien’s Magician was sixth in 2014, and Main Sequence was seventh in 2015.
Yet Highland Reel does have one caveat. He was a tiring fourth in this race last year, his first start back from the Hong Kong Vase (G1). The itinerary is similar, since he was last seen in Hong Kong again, but he’s another year older, possibly a lot stronger and further along than in 2016. O’Brien historically hasn’t targeted this meet to the same degree as other international festivals; this time he’s sent a bigger squad than ever before, which may signal a different approach.
In general, it’s been a winning strategy to reappear in the Sheema. Ten of 19 Sheema winners were returning to action, including St Nicholas Abbey. Aside from Highland Reel, O’Brien is also starting off the filly Seventh Heaven in this spot. She will attempt to emulate the four distaff winners, Sun Classique (2008), Dar Re Mi (2010), Gentildonna (2014) and Dolniya (2015). Unlike Seventh Heaven, however, they’d all been tried versus males before.
Dar Re Mi resumed from a layoff to conquer her Sheema for trainer John Gosden, who’s plotting a similar path this time around with the stealthy Jack Hobbs (more on him in Friday’s selections blog). Japan’s Sounds of Earth is likewise making his seasonal debut here
Only three Sheema winners had competed at the Carnival – the aforementioned Sun Classique, who took in the distaffers’ preps; unreal improver Eastern Anthem (2009), who progressed through handicaps; and Postponed last year by prepping in the City of Gold. Godolphin’s Prize Money just upended Postponed in the renewal of the City of Gold, and both will try to boost the local prep again.
My World Cup card selections and preferred longshots will appear in a Friday blog.