December 17, 2017

Highland hopes to ‘Reel’ in another Hong Kong Vase

Highland Reel rolled to a 1 3/4-length, wire-to-wire victory in the 2016 Turf (Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com)

Last December, Highland Reel (Ire) made history as the first three-year-old male to win the Hong Kong Vase (G1) – and as Aidan O’Brien’s first Hong Kong International Race winner. On Sunday, he’ll be heavily favored to repeat, and in the process, make another bit of history as the first reigning Breeders’ Cup winner to follow up on HKIR raceday.

Two past Breeders’ Cup champions have won an HKIR event, but not in the same year as their stateside heroics. Fantastic Light’s Hong Kong Cup (G1) victory came in 2000, prior to his Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) victory in 2001, and Ouija Board landed the Vase in 2005, the year between her Filly & Mare Turf (G1) trophies in 2004 and 2006.

But both had made Breeders’ Cup appearances in defeat en route to their Hong Kong triumphs, and a handful of other HKIR winners were exiting the Breeders’ Cup, including HK Cup winners Falbrav (2003) and Eagle Mountain (2008) and Vase hero Flintshire (2014), who had all run bang-up races when placing in the BC Turf.

As that preamble suggests, there is precedent for top Breeders’ Cup internationals to follow up in Hong Kong (a factor that also works for Vase rival Nuovo Record [Jpn]). Given Highland Reel’s iron-clad constitution, proven ability to maintain form over the long haul of travel, and fine appearance he’s made this week at Sha Tin, he’s an unlikely candidate to regress.

That’s bad news for the rest of the field, for Highland Reel is clearly the best in the race. Since dethroning Flintshire here a year ago, the Galileo colt has enhanced his resume by capturing the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot and the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita, and in between, finishing second to stablemate Found in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). No rival can claim that standard of form.

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

Although anyone is beatable on an off day, Highland Reel doesn’t figure to have one. Aside from the Arc, his losses this term have either come over inadequate trips, on rain-softened ground, or when short of fitness – none of which obtains Sunday, when he’ll get his optimal conditions of about 1 1/2 miles on a quick course, along with a class edge.

Other than the theoretical chance of regression, a potential complication could be the pace scenario he meets breaking from post 10. With the proven stayer Big Orange (GB) expected to show speed, and locally based Helene Happy Star (Ire) and Smart Layer (Jpn) also liable to go forward, Highland Reel won’t get to dictate on the front end as he did in the King George and the Breeders’ Cup. Nor does he have to – he’s not one-dimensional, and actually eased back just off the pace in last year’s Vase. But if you’re probing for the favorite’s vulnerability, it could come courtesy of getting embroiled in a more rollicking pace than usual for this trip. Ace rider Ryan Moore will be attuned to that, however, and he’ll slot into the most sensible position.

Should Highland Reel stamp his authority as expected, he’d join Luso (1996-97) and Doctor Dino (2007-08) as a two-time Vase winner.

The Gallic trio

Since France holds the all-time Vase record with 10 wins, it’s logical to look next to the Gallic trio of Silverwave (Fr), One Foot in Heaven (Ire), and Garlingari (Fr).

Silverwave earned his signature win in this summer’s Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (G1), beating eventual Canadian International (G1) victor Erupt as well as Garlingari and One Foot in Heaven. But the Pascal Bary trainee has consistently been a notch below Highland Reel, a point driven home once again by his subpar 13th in the Arc last time out.

Courtesy Hong Kong Jockey Club
One Foot in Heaven (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

For that reason, lightly-raced One Foot in Heaven shapes up as a more attractive alternative. Entitled to be a late developer as a son of Fastnet Rock and the magnificent mare Pride, winner of the 2006 Hong Kong Cup, One Foot in Heaven is a progressive type who’s yet to reach his peak. The Alain de Royer-Dupre pupil served notice with a three-stakes winning spree in the spring, culminating in a defeat of Garlingari in the Grand Prix de Chantilly (G2). He couldn’t maintain that rate of improvement over the summer, but began to regroup with a creditable sixth in the Arc, and got back in business by scoring in the October 16 Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2).

The negative about One Foot in Heaven is that his bloodwork was off upon arrival in Hong Kong, and upon veterinary advice, he stayed a couple of extra days lounging in the quarantine area. On the plus side, according to the South China Morning Post, he never actually got sick. The bloodwork just flagged a possible precursor of illness that was apparently warded off, and One Foot in Heaven was good to venture forth and train at Sha Tin Thursday. If he’s passed fit to compete, the whole episode may end up being a tempest in a teapot – and something we never would have even heard of in a less transparent jurisdiction. A healthy One Foot in Heaven promises to run very well for regular rider Christophe Soumillon.

Garlingari is the new stable star for Corine Barande-Barbe, best known for her handling of the remarkable globetrotter Cirrus des Aigles, who made an annual pilgrimage here without managing to win. Not up to that venerable level, Garlingari was nonetheless on an upward curve at the beginning of the season when garnering the Prix Exbury (G3) and Prix d’Harcourt (G2). The homebred has stalled in the interim, and must conjure up a bit more to factor in the finish.

A game British front runner

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Big Orange (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Great Britain has also had great success in the Vase, and Big Orange promises to put up a characteristically bold effort on the front end. Trained by Michael Bell, the aptly named son of Duke of Marmalade has won the past two runnings of both the 1 1/2-mile Princess of Wales’s (G2) at Newmarket and the two-mile Goodwood Cup (G2). As a result, Big Orange had to shoulder the co-top weight in the Melbourne Cup (G1), and it proved an anchor as he wound up 10th. Back down in trip for the Zipping Classic (G2), he set the pace in the teeth of a stiff headwind, and was just denied in third. While he probably doesn’t have the gears to win a race of this caliber at this distance, Big Orange will run his heart out for every single yard, and that may well be enough to hit the board.

Japan and other internationals

At first blush, it may appear surprising that Japan has won the Vase only once, thanks to Stay Gold (2001), but the timing doesn’t fit too well for them. The Vase is sandwiched right between the Japan Cup (G1) and Arima Kinen (G1), making it a tight fit for the Japanese who’d have ample reason to stay home.

Hence the three representing Japan in Sunday’s renewal are all swerving marquee prizes at home, seeing the Vase as a relatively easier spot. And with the lone exception of Highland Reel, they’re right.

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Nuovo Record (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

The pick of the Japanese is high-class mare Nuovo Record, who shouldn’t be judged by her no-show in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). She brushed that off by wheeling back to take the Red Carpet (G3) at Del Mar, an outing that connections regarded as no more than a “breeze” for Hong Kong.

Nuovo Record nips Arles in Red Carpet warm-up for Hong Kong

The winner of the 2014 Yushun Himba (Japanese Oaks) (G1) over Harp Star in her only previous attempt at this distance, Nuovo Record was a fast-finishing second to A Shin Hikari in last year’s Hong Kong Cup (G1), and a repeat of that would put her squarely in contention. She’s been training sharply at Sha Tin too, rounding off her preparations with an eye-catching work Thursday and posting final splits of :11.1 and :10. If that’s any indication, Nuovo Record is ready to run up to her best.

Compatriots Satono Crown (Jpn) and Smart Layer (Jpn) have more to prove. Satono Crown, third in last year’s Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) in his only 2400-meter try, has been disappointing since taking the Kyoto Kinen (G2) on soft ground back in February. The mare Smart Layer, yet to go this far, has been unplaced in her two sorties over 2200 meters in the 2014-2015 runnings of the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (G1) at Kyoto. That puts her some way behind Nuovo Record, who’d missed narrowly both years.

The remaining two internationals, New Zealand’s Benzini (Aus) and Singapore’s Quechua (Arg), appear up against it. Benzini, whose career high came in the Brisbane Cup (G2) in June, is exposed in Group 1 company in his part of the world. Quechua, an Argentinian Group 2 scorer who vaulted to stardom in Singapore, may not be quite the force he once was on that circuit, and this is a lot deeper.

Hong Kong’s hopefuls

Turning to the locals, the Vase is the one HKIR trophy that the Hong Kong runners have found toughest to keep at home. Only two of 22 runnings have gone to the home team, and it took a champion like Indigenous (1998) to win the first, and a stroke of luck for Dominant (2013) to upend a troubled The Fugue. That record’s not likely to change on Sunday.

Helene Happy Star (Ire) has found his best Hong Kong form at this trip, and tuned up with a solid fourth going shorter in the Jockey Club Cup (G2). Flame Hero (NZ) exits a rattling second in the same prep, but his 80-1 odds that day size up his status.

Anticipation (Hong Kong Jockey Club)
Anticipation (Hong Kong Jockey Club)

Hong Kong’s better hopes arguably lie with a pair of runners beaten by them last time, yet boasting much more upside – the Tony Cruz-trained Anticipation (Ire) and Eastern Express (Ire) from the John Size yard, both by One Foot in Heaven’s sire, Fastnet Rock. Anticipation, formerly known as Table Rock when trained by O’Brien, has taken time to come to hand in his new home. He’s shown signs of putting it all together this year, as evidenced by his barnstorming second in the Queen Mother Memorial Cup (his only try at this distance) and emphatic defeat of Eastern Express in a handicap to kick off the fall. Anticipation hasn’t had the right kind of trip in his last pair, but he should get the right set-up here from a plum inside draw – and with Neil Callan back aboard. That makes him a very interesting longshot.

Eastern Express brings a high level of form from his near-miss third in February’s Hong Kong Classic Cup, and he’s been an honest type. Although untried over 2400 meters, he’s bred to handle it. Like the year-older Anticipation, Eastern Express must step up at level weights against a few serious internationals, but may have the talent lurking to make his presence felt.

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