Highland Reel hopes to turn tables on Dartmouth in King George

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July 21st, 2016

Saturday’s King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) lost its top draw when reigning titleholder Postponed came down with a respiratory infection, making for (what appears at this stage) a substandard renewal. Yet Ascot’s 1 1/2-mile showpiece still has strong interest from an American perspective, with Aidan O’Brien’s duo of Highland Reel and Sir Isaac Newton possibly in line for transatlantic ventures.

Highland Reel, who dominated the Secretariat (G1) at Arlington last summer and upended Flintshire in December’s Hong Kong Vase (G1), was narrowly denied by The Queen’s Dartmouth in the June 18 Hardwicke (G2) in his latest.

Although that tough loss came over this course and distance, there are three reasons why Highland Reel may reverse the form on Saturday: the Hardwicke marked his first start back from fruitless foreign ventures earlier in the season, and he may profit from the prep; the ground at the Royal meeting was softer than ideal, and it’s vastly better now; and jockey Seamie Heffernan dropped the whip during the pulsating battle with Dartmouth. It’s by no means clear that mishap was decisive to the result, since Highland Reel was trying on his own courage, but you can’t be 100% certain either. Ryan Moore, who rode Exosphere (eighth as the favorite) in the Hardwicke, now gets back aboard Highland Reel.

In light of his resounding success in Chicago, I hope that Highland Reel takes up his engagement in the August 13 Arlington Million (G1). Stablemate Sir Isaac Newton entered the frame for an American target after his victory in the June 26 International (G3) at the Curragh, a mere eight days following his breakthrough in the Wolferton at Royal Ascot. Both came at 1 1/4 miles, so perhaps the early nominee to the Million might be booking a flight. Interestingly, Sir Isaac Newton is a $6 million full brother to Secret Gesture, who was disqualified in last year’s Beverly D. (G1).

The progressive Dartmouth brings a three-race winning streak into his Group 1 debut, where he’ll try to win the race named in honor of his owner’s parents. Improving in leaps and bounds for Sir Michael Stoute, the 4-year-old wasn’t originally made eligible for the King George. But after climbing the ladder with successive scores in the April 16 John Porter (G3), May 16 Ormonde (G3) and the Hardwicke, he merited a supplemental entry here. Jockey Olivier Peslier, who picked up the ride when Moore went for Exosphere in the Hardwicke, retains the mount aboard the 2-1 favorite.

The King George isn’t quite the epic generational clash as in former years, but at least the 2016 classic crop has a smart representative in John Gosden’s Wings of Desire. The lone 3-year-old in this small field, the late developer made rapid strides this spring, propelling himself into joint favoritism for the Derby (G1) by beating O’Brien’s Deauville in the May 12 Dante (G2). The rain-softened ground at Epsom wasn’t his preference, so Wings of Desire wasn’t disgraced in fourth. While that puts him some way behind divisional leader Harzand at the moment, Wings of Desire is nevertheless eligible to do a lot better back on a faster surface on Saturday. If he does, Wings of Desire can underline the depth of the Epsom form versus elders. The hefty 12-pound weight concession helps, and he’s currently trading as the third choice at around 7-2, not far off the 5-2 Highland Reel.

Gosden fields a longer shot in Western Hymn, who steps up to 12 furlongs for only the second time in his career. Sixth to Australia in the 2014 Derby, Western Hymn has been a solid campaigner at 10 furlongs until flopping last time out in the July 2 Eclipse (G1) at Sandown.

French shipper Erupt has gone winless since last summer’s Grand Prix de Paris (G1), but his respectable fifth in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) and his recent second in the July 3 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1) put him in the mix. He’s another who will appreciate the quick going.

Rounding out the field is Second Step from the Luca Cumani yard. It’s significant that he had to go to Germany to earn his Group 1 trophy in last August’s Grosser Preis Von Berlin (G1), and he exits well-beaten fifths in both the Coronation Cup (G1) and Princess of Wales’s (G2). The lack of a genuine pace didn’t help him at Epsom or Newmarket, and a muddling tempo is likely on tap at Ascot too.

Earlier on the card, Frankel’s highly regarded daughter Fair Eva makes her stakes debut in the Princess Margaret (G3). Kachess, a bitter disappointment behind Lady Aurelia in the Queen Mary (G2), bids for redemption over six furlongs. Queen Mary fourth Kocollada; Duchess of Cambridge runner-up Magical Fire, fourth-placer Kilmah, and subpar ninth Nasimi; and O’Brien’s How (a maiden sister to Minding) are among her opponents.

Up north, Time Test is all the rage for the eponymous York S. (G2), a course-and-distance prep for the August 17 Juddmonte International (G1). Woodbine Mile (G1) hero and Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) runner-up Mondialiste; the top two from the Earl of Sefton (G3), Mahsoob and Air Pilot (who’s since added the June 22 La Coupe [G3]); and Time Test’s pacemaker, Countermeasure, comprise the rest of the five-horse field.

Dartmouth vs Highland Reel (left) photo courtesy of Ascot Racecourse via Twitter