Highland Reel, Queen's Trust strike for Europe in Breeders' Cup
by RON FLATTER
Arcadia, California – Having done it five times before, Aidan O’Brien was bound to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf again Saturday. The only question was which of his two horses was going to get the job done.
For anyone who watched Highland Reel help set the pace for Found’s win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe last month at Chantilly, it came as little surprise that the order was reversed on a Santa Anita course that has been known to be kind to big, early speed.
Under a masterful ride from Seamie Heffernan, Highland Reel opened a seven-length lead on the backstretch and held off a late charge by the 9-to-5 favorite Flintshire to win the 1 1/2-mile race by 1 3/4 lengths. After missing the start, defending champion Found settled for third in what was presumably her last race before becoming a broodmare.
It was one of only two races Europeans won during the Breeders’ Cup. The English filly Queen’s Trust outran the favorite Lady Eli to win by a nose in the Filly & Mare Turf.
The plan to send Highland Reel to the Turf and, for that matter, to an early lead was hatched by the Coolmore brain trust weeks ago.
“We know that he gets a mile-and-a-half very well,” O’Brien said. “We know that he handles fast ground. He doesn’t mind dictating. He doesn’t mind sitting in. It was straightforward, really, but Seamus executed it brilliantly. He was very happy to make the run, and then when he did he controlled the race perfectly, and he kicked at the right time, and really the race was over from a long ways out.”
While it was O’Brien’s sixth win in the Turf and his 11th in any Breeders’ Cup race, it was the first such victory for Heffernan. At 44, he has been overshadowed for 20 years in a Coolmore stable where lately Ryan Moore has been the unquestioned star, and a past rider like O’Brien’s son, Joseph, preceded Heffernan into the Breeders’ Cup winner’s circle.
“Nobody deserves it more than Seamus,” said O’Brien, who pointed out that Heffernan is also Highland Reel’s morning workout rider. “Seamus is in his early 40s. Every single year he’s gotten better. He’s still getting better. In about 10 years’ time he might stop improving.”
“I’ve been there a long time, and I went there as second jockey, and I get very, very well looked after,” Heffernan said. “More recently my name is coming out of the hat for the rides, and I’m happy with my position. There’s no pressure. I’m never really on the first string, although the first and thirds can be equal, never mind the second string.”
In all candor, though, Heffernan knew he was on the first string Saturday before the race started.
“When Ryan said I was, I was happy enough going along with my thoughts and his thoughts.”
O’Brien and the Coolmore team arrived at this plan, strategy and outcome for the Breeders’ Cup on the day of the Arc five weeks ago in France. O’Brien credited the three men he fondly calls “the lads” – Coolmore owners Michael Tabor, John Magnier and Derrick Smith.
“The lads decided that themselves,” O’Brien said. “They thought after the Arc that they would like to come here straight away.”
“We really thought that this track would suit Highland Reel and fast ground would suit him,” Tabor said. “The plan was hopefully in an ideal world would go to the front and dictate, and that’s exactly what happened. Sometimes it works out.”
Drawn to the far outside in the field of 12, Heffernan moved Highland Reel, the 7-to-2 third choice, to a two-length lead in the first quarter mile, which was run in 24.83 seconds. The quarters went by in 48.00, 1:12.70 and 1:36.16 as Highland Reel built a seven-length lead. It was still 6 1/2 lengths with a quarter-mile to go, but by then Javier Castellano had Flintshire on the move, getting within four lengths turning into the stretch. That is when Heffernan showed Highland Reel the whip and then used it just enough to find another gear that put the race away.
“The course was very, very firm,” said Chad Brown, who had not lost with Flintshire on a dry track since the 6-year-old was transferred to him from French trainer André Fabre last winter. “When you have a classy horse like that alone on the lead, it’s dangerous. We have no excuses.”
At 7-to-2, Found’s trip to third place was not easy. After stumbling out of the gate under Moore, she had to split horses the first time past the stands, then through the far turn and again, finally, with a furlong to go.
“Ryan said that she was awkward coming out of the stalls, which didn’t help her case,” Smith said. “She ran a super race. We’re very, very pleased with her. Today nothing was going to beat Highland Reel.”
Tabor said that while a final decision has not been made, Found was likely to be retired from racing. For Highland Reel, the story is quite different.
“He has two options,” O’Brien said. “He has the Japan Cup and the race in Hong Kong (the Vase). The lads will think and talk about what they want to do. The Japan Cup is only three weeks away, and Hong Kong is then obviously three weeks after that. I don’t know whether he’ll be able to take in the two or whether he can take in the one.”
Highland Reel won the 2015 Hong Kong Vase, but it is the Japan Cup that is the more tantalizing. Not only does it offer a winner’s share of $2.9 million but also a potential $1 million bonus that goes to any horse that wins that race and either the Breeders’ Cup Turf or the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes in July at Ascot, England. Highland Reel would be looking at the possibility of a sweep, although the bonus does not go above $1 million.
“The plan would be that he’ll probably go home tomorrow or the next day,” O’Brien said, “and then we’ll see how he is. But he’s an incredibly versatile horse that loves traveling. He’s an extremely special horse, and he’s obviously by Galileo. Today was probably his heaviest day he’s ever raced, and physically in the paddock he looked super special. I can’t tell you how delighted we are.”
The trip from England proved worth it for the connections of Queen’s Trust. Winless since she broke her maiden in a September debut on the all-weather track at Kempton, England, the 3-year-old filly by Dansili finally broke through at 8-to-1 for her first turf victory Saturday.
“The filly is hugely talented,” said Chris Richardson, managing partner of Cheveley Park Stud, owner of Queen’s Trust. “She’s had good draws and been a little unlucky in a number of the races she’s been competing in at the Group 1 level. She’s shown a terrific turn of foot. That was certainly shown today.”
It was also the first time she had been ridden by Frankie Dettori, who performed his trademark flying leap from horseback in the winner’s circle for the 12th time in a Breeders’ Cup race. It was his third time finishing first in the Filly & Mare Turf.
“I rode her one morning before she came to America,” Dettori said, “and she didn’t give me much of a feel. But her form has been solid; I’ve been watching her all year. I knew we had a chance because of the way the race was going to set up.”
Queen’s Trust was 11th of the 13 runners with a half-mile to go in the 10-furlong race. From there she split horses on the turn for home and rallied past the pace-setting Avenge and into the duel with Lady Eli that she barely won.
Now a seven-time-winning Breeders’ Cup trainer, Sir Michael Stoute said he was convinced Queen’s Trust belonged in this race when she finished second in July to Minding in the G1 Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, England.
“She had every chance that day,” Stoute said. “She just wasn’t quite good enough, but it was an excellent performance. I looked at what was lining up. She hadn’t had a tough season. I thought I really would like to have a crack at this. But I needed to persuade, and I wasn’t optimistic about it, because I knew (the owners’) stand. Fortunately they came up with an affirmative, and thank God they did.”
Richardson confirmed that Queen’s Trust would race on as a 4-year-old, but he would not commit to a schedule. She might tackle many of the same races again, with the Nassau leading to the Breeders’ Cup and a chance to defend next year at Del Mar in the Filly & Mare Turf.
“No doubt Sir Michael will speak to (the owners) and we’ll map out a plan as long as she obviously comes out of this race well. She has got a huge amount of potential.”
Photos by Jim Tyrrell/Horsephotos.com