BC Internationals: Turf contender Highland Reel

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TwinSpires Staff

October 24th, 2017

Highland Reel (Dubai racing Club/Mathea Kelley Photo)

Breeders' Cup Turf International Horse Profile: Highland Reel

by Kellie Reilly

Defending Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) champion Highland Reel has made such a name for himself in the United States that it’s almost superfluous to give him another international profile treatment. Yet enough has transpired since his front-running coup at Santa Anita last November to warrant it.

To give a brief overview of Highland Reel, the Aidan O’Brien trainee has been a high-class individual for four consecutive campaigns while bankrolling more than £6 million. The blueblood son of Galileo flashed serious promise at two, improved over the course of his three-year-old season, entered his prime at four, and padded his resume this year as a five-year-old. His combination of tactical speed, stamina, tough constitution, and bomb-proof temperament have made him just the right type to crisscross the globe, and he’s taken his show on the road not only to North America but Dubai, Hong Kong, and Australia (where he was third to Winx in her first Cox Plate [G1] in 2015).

For deeper background, see my scouting report ahead of his dazzling victory in the 2015 Secretariat (G1) at Arlington, and analysis of his 2016 campaign leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.

In last year’s Turf, Highland Reel lulled his foes into a false sense of security before delivering a sudden injection of pace to break the race open. Jockey Seamie Heffernan, who engineered his Secretariat romp in similar fashion, simply put on a masterclass in how to judge pace and deploy Highland Reel’s firepower to maximum effect. Flintshire, Found, Ulysses, and the rest never had a chance.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Highland Reel was off on his travels again to defend his title in the December 11 Hong Kong Vase (G1). But the pace dynamic was adverse this time, as he endured a mid-race challenge when the stayer Big Orange rushed up on the backstretch. Instead of letting Big Orange go and easing Highland Reel back, or at least keeping him in steady rhythm, jockey Ryan Moore instead appeared to cue him for more. The obliging Highland Reel regained the lead, but extra exertion at that point told on him late. Although initially pulling away in the stretch, he could not respond when Japan’s Satono Crown ran the race of his life to catch him. Highland Reel ran about as well as you can in defeat, and it’s worth wondering if a different split-second decision on the backstretch could have yielded a different result.

Highland Reel opened 2017 in a familiar vein, venturing to Dubai for the Sheema Classic (G1) on World Cup night. As a horse who’s never won first up, he figured to need the race, much as he did when fourth in the 2016 Sheema. But what was less expected, pelting rain turned the Meydan course yielding. Highland Reel can’t pick up in rain-softened ground, so between the layoff and the unsuitable conditions, his trailing in seventh is explicable – and forgivable. Moore took care of him once his wheels were spinning in the stretch.

The trip wasn’t wasted, for Highland Reel was now ready to commence his European campaign in the June 2 Coronation Cup (G1) at Epsom. A delayed flight from Ireland – that put him on course with little time to spare – would have flustered many, but not the warrior Highland Reel.

“He never showed any softness in his life,” O’Brien said. “He’s been travelling since 4 a.m. this morning and has only been here an hour. He didn’t have a lot of time to do anything – he had his piddle, got washed off and then came into the paddock.”

You’d never know of the pre-race woes judging by how resilient Highland Reel was up front. When Godolphin’s Hawkbill accosted him in the straight, the Coolmore colorbearer found an extra burst to see him off.

Wheeling back 19 days later and shortening up for the 1 1/4-mile Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot, Highland Reel again showed his battling spirit and will to win when confronted. Equally, he served a reminder that he’s no need-the-lead type, but can happily stalk if someone else is inclined to make the running. As the closers fanned out, Ulysses appeared to have his measure, and even Decorated Knight threatened to pass. Yet Highland Reel kicked into another gear inside the final furlong to repel both, at a distance short of his optimum at this point in his career.

Unfortunately, a wet summer dampened Highland Reel’s chances for more glory. He returned to Ascot to seek a repeat victory in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1), but you can see he just doesn’t have the traction on softish going. On a firm surface, he would have been better than fourth to star filly Enable (the eventual Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe [G1] winner), Ulysses, and full brother Idaho.

Had Highland Reel adopted his 2016 itinerary, we would have seen him in the Juddmonte International (G1), Irish Champion (G1), and Arc. But he didn’t appear in any of them. Ground concerns were reportedly cited, although the Irish Champion turned out to be run in better conditions than first expected. And they could have kept him in until assessing the course on raceday, if not just letting him take part anyway to keep him busy. That’s an unusual three-month break in the heart of the season for a horse who raced eight times in 2015 and nine times last year.

The ground was at least as bad for the October 21 Champion (G1) at Ascot. Indeed, it was “heavy” around the part of the course known as Swinley Bottom. But by that point, Highland Reel needed to run. Moore angled him well out to the opposite rail in search of the better going – an advisable ploy, since it would have sapped more energy to plow through the worst of the ground. Cutting back across to join the field for the drive, Highland Reel couldn’t match the dynamo that was Cracksman. Several others flailed so much that they didn’t do themselves justice, but Highland Reel fought his heart out to the line and nearly snatched second. 

This was an excellent effort in the circumstances, and Highland Reel is entitled to come on a bundle for it. At Del Mar, he’ll get his preferred firm turf, and it’s easy to envision him building up an insurmountable advantage into the relatively short stretch. He’d be an eminently worthy two-time Turf hero, emulating Conduit and past O’Brien star High Chaparral.

The one question is that he’s taking a different path to the Breeders’ Cup. Last year, he owned the key Turf trend in favor of horses exiting Arc losses, a stat now brandished by his rival Ulysses. Highland Reel is capable of the quick turnaround from the Champion, a successful launching pad to the Turf for Pebbles (1985), Kalanisi (2000), and his own stablemate Found (after the 2015 Arc). Nevertheless, the unexpectedly light schedule of late remains something to ponder.