Highland Reel leads Breeders’ Cup Turf foes on a merry dance

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November 5th, 2016

In a race devoid of any other serious pace presence, the Aidan O’Brien-trained Highland Reel loomed as a potential wire threat in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), much as he’d nicked the July 23 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot. With Coolmore’s go-to rider Ryan Moore opting for defending Turf champion and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) winner Found, the plum pick-up mount went to Ballydoyle journeyman Seamie Heffernan, and he delivered a masterclass of a ride to dominate at Santa Anita.

Heffernan ensured a prompt start by hustling Highland Reel out of the gate, and confident in the Galileo colt’s stamina, sent him to clear the field from the outside post 12. From that point on, it was a case of the clock ticking in Heffernan’s head with atomic precision. Highland Reel clicked off fractions of :24.83, :48.00, and 1:12.70 in splendid isolation. Heffernan executed the coup de grace on the backstretch, and wound him up to establish a seven-length break on the field at the mile split in 1:36.16. Highland Reel did the rest, rolling around the far turn to reach 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.34 and galloping remorselessly into the stretch.

Late-running 9-5 favorite Flintshire never had a realistic chance of catching a world-class rival who’d taken the race by the scruff of the neck. The Juddmonte colorbearer gave pursuit, but Highland Reel was comfortably best by 1 3/4 lengths.

That was a little more than the margin between them in last December’s Hong Kong Vase (G1), where then-sophomore Highland Reel also bested Flintshire. At Sha Tin, Flintshire appeared to outmove him briefly in the stretch, but Highland Reel kicked in strongly to turn back his elder. There wasn’t any such suspense at Santa Anita, and Flintshire won't have the opportunity to try again. He's retiring to stud at Hill 'n' Dale.

Found, who stumbled at the start, may have been further behind in the early stages because of that miscue. But even with a clean break, she was always going to be held up off the pace, and this race shape didn’t favor her. In the circumstances, Found did very well to close for third, 2 1/4 lengths astern of Flintshire, in her swan song.

British shipper Ulysses crossed the wire the same margin back in fourth. A stablemate of Saturday’s Filly & Mare Turf (G1) heroine Queen’s Trust, the lightly raced Sir Michael Stoute pupil is one to mark down for Breeders’ Cup 34 at Del Mar.

Highland Reel negotiated 1 1/2 firm-turf miles in a sparkling 2:23.00 as the 7-2 third choice. Most recently runner-up to Found at Chantilly, the Turf conditions brought out the best in him to engineer a reversal of form.

The globetrotter is expected to stay in training next year, when Highland Reel stands to enhance his already extraordinary resume. Not many can claim to have won a Vintage (G2) at Glorious Goodwood at two; a Hong Kong Vase, Secretariat (G1), and Gordon (G3) at three while also placing in a French Derby (G1) and a Cox Plate (G1) (to Winx); and a King George and Breeders’ Cup Turf at four while placing in an Arc, Juddmonte International (G1), and Hardwicke (G2).

Highland Reel's coup gave O'Brien his 11th career Breeders' Cup victory -- and his 23rd Group/Grade 1 of 2016 (if you include one G1 over the jumps), just two away from Bobby Frankel's single-season record of 25.