Defending champion Postponed will meet only six rivals in Saturday’s $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic (G1), but with such esteemed challengers as Highland Reel and Jack Hobbs, he’ll have to be at his tip-top best to score the repeat.
Last March, Postponed turned up at the Carnival for new trainer Roger Varian, who had received the 2015 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) hero from the yard of Luca Cumani. Postponed picked up right where he left off, exuding class in his Dubai City of Gold (G2) warm-up and breaking the course record for about 1 1/2 miles in the Sheema. He continued his hot streak back in England. An imperious winner of the Coronation Cup (G1) over Found, Postponed missed his King George title defense due to a respiratory infection, but was ready in time to beat Highland Reel in the Juddmonte International (G1). Perhaps flattened by that effort coming off an illness, he was a lackluster fifth to Found and Highland Reel in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).
Postponed resumed in the March 4 City of Gold, where he was expected to boss the field. Instead, he encountered traffic and came up a neck shy of Godolphin’s Prize Money. The six-year-old son of Dubawi is entitled to strip fitter, but no horse has been able to win the Sheema twice.
Highland Reel, only fourth to Postponed in last year’s Sheema, may be more advanced this time around for Aidan O’Brien. He’s arguably the heir apparent to Coolmore’s much-missed St Nicholas Abbey, who developed into a globetrotting warrior as an older horse. Like St Nicholas Abbey did in 2011, Highland Reel rolled in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) last November, and now he seeks to add the Sheema title that “St Nick” won in 2013. No reigning Breeders’ Cup Turf winner has followed up in the Sheema, though.
The Galileo blueblood was most recently a tough-beat second when attempting to defend his crown in the December 11 Hong Kong Vase (G1). The four-time Group 1 star, whose resume also features a wire job in last summer’s King George, promises to race handy in a tactical affair.
So might Jack Hobbs, who dons first-time blinkers. Trained by John Gosden for Godolphin and partners, the son of Halling has long been highly regarded. He played second fiddle to champion stablemate Golden Horn in the 2015 Derby (G1) at Epsom before dominating the Irish Derby (G1), in which Highland Reel was a disappointing fifth. Jack Hobbs was all set for a breakout 2016, only to be pulled up with a pelvic fracture in his reappearance. He recovered smoothly enough to get in one start at the end of the British Flat season in the Champion S. (G1), staying on strongly to finish third in the 1 1/4-mile feature for the second straight year.
That’s quite an accomplishment for the true 1 1/2-mile horse, especially considering that the top two across the wire last October were standout colt Almanzor and Arc heroine Found. Jack Hobbs thereby brings the gaudiest last-out formline of anyone in the field. Gosden had the Sheema in mind all along as a long-range plan, and he’ll be ready to fire his best shot off the bench. Jack Hobbs thus remains Godolphin’s premier hope, although Saeed bin Suroor’s Prize Money had upended Postponed in the prep. Gelding has been the making of Prized Money, a onetime classic hopeful who’s three-for-four since his operation, and there’s no telling where his ceiling is.
Aside from Jack Hobbs, the only other classic winner in the group is O’Brien’s filly Seventh Heaven. Victorious in an uninspiring Irish Oaks (G1), the daughter of Galileo proved herself capable of a higher standard by beating her elders in the Yorkshire Oaks (G1), chief among them a less-than-cranked Found. Seventh Heaven was off the board in her two ensuing starts, with excuses. She was roughed up en route to her fifth in the British Champions Fillies & Mares (G1), and not being the type to enjoy 1 1/4 miles around a track like Santa Anita, her fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) was respectable. Like Jack Hobbs, she’s back up to her preferred trip here, but she’s never before tried males. With Ryan Moore obviously opting for Highland Reel, Seventh Heaven reunites with Irish Oaks pilot Seamie Heffernan.
Japan has an unusually subdued presence. The big guns have all preferred to stay home, leaving Sounds of Earth as the lone flagbearer in the Sheema. Yet to win a black-type event, Sounds of Earth nonetheless has strong Grade 1 form as a bridesmaid. He was a near-miss runner-up in the 2014 Japanese St Leger (G1) and 2015 Arima Kinen (G1), and best of the rest behind Horse of the Year Kitasan Black in last November’s Japan Cup (G1). Sounds of Earth may not be a win machine, but he’s the likeliest of anyone outside the “Big Three” to be involved I the finish.
Carnival regular Earnshaw completes the field. This smacks of a participation trophy for an honest campaigner who couldn’t quite get into the Dubai Turf (G1), and now must step up to this trip for the first time. The one thing in his favor is that he’s been in good form for Salem bin Ghadayer, who had two winners on Super Saturday, including Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1) shocker Long River.
Wednesday update: the field after the post position draw.