Globetrotter extraordinaire Highland Reel aims to go out on a high note in his expected career finale in Sunday’s $2.3 million Hong Kong Vase (G1), where he’ll have the chance to gain revenge on his Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) conqueror, Talismanic.
At Del Mar last out, Highland Reel was mounting a Breeders’ Cup title defense in just his second start back from a break. The Aidan O’Brien veteran has historically thrived on a busy schedule, so it wasn’t a big surprise that he ran like a horse still working toward his peak after a midseason setback. Although yielding to Talismanic and Beach Patrol, Highland Reel was a close third – good enough to become Europe’s all-time leading money-winner – and he’s entitled to come on for that run.
The hardy son of Galileo is making his third straight Vase appearance. Dethroning Flintshire here in 2015, Highland Reel became the first three-year-old male to take the about 1 1/2-mile feature. Last year as the defending champion, he turned in a bold front-running bid, only to be nailed late by Satono Crown. Now he’ll try to make Vase history again, this time by becoming the first dual winner in non-consecutive years.
A six-time Group 1 star on three continents, Highland Reel has captured such prestigious British contests as the 2016 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (G1) and this season’s Coronation Cup (G1) and Prince of Wales’s (G1) at Royal Ascot. The five-year-old thereby sets the standard on his best form, and he’ll reunite with Ryan Moore on Sunday.
Talismanic had yet to break the Group 1 barrier before the Breeders’ Cup Turf, explaining his generous 14-1 odds, but he was on the upswing. Trained by Andre Fabre for Godolphin, the flashy dark bay dominated the Prix Maurice de Nieuil (G2) on the stretch-out to about 1 3/4 miles, then reverted to this typical trip and finished a fine third in the Prix Foy (G2). That result was enhanced when Foy runner-up Cloth of Stars came back to place second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). Talismanic worked out the best trip at Del Mar, and regular rider Mickael Barzalona could mastermind another favorable passage from the rail.
Talismanic’s emergence reflects well on compatriot Tiberian, who’d beaten him twice earlier this campaign in the Prix d’Hedouville (G3) and Prix de la Porte de Madrid. The Alain Couetil trainee was subsequently put on the Melbourne Cup (G1) trail. After landing both the Prix de Reux (G3) and Grand Prix de Deauville (G2), Tiberian was handed an extreme post at Flemington (22 of 23), putting his seventh-place effort in the Cup in context. He’s eligible to do himself justice back down in trip, especially considering that jockey Olivier Peslier has won seven Hong Kong International Races (just one off Gerald Mosses’s all-time record).
Also exiting the Melbourne Cup is Willie Mullins’ dual-purpose campaigner Max Dynamite. The sometime hurdler has run mighty races in both of his Melbourne Cup tries, finishing a half-length second in 2016 and most recently third to Rekindling and Johannes Vermeer (the Joseph and Aidan O’Brien exacta). The two-mile specialist has to prove himself going about 1 1/2 miles at this level.
Japan fields two contenders in hopes of following up on Satono Crown’s success. Progressive three-year-old Kiseki is the better half of the duo. Second to reigning Japanese Derby (G1) hero (and recent Japan Cup [G1] runner-up) Rey de Oro in the Kobe Shimbun Hai (G2) two back, Kiseki reached a new career high last out in the Kikuka Sho (Japanese St Leger) (G1). The rub, however, is that the Katsuhiko Sumii pupil has turned up with a fungal skin infection. He’s reportedly training nicely at Sha Tin, but stay tuned on whether he’s cleared to compete. Fellow Japanese shipper Tosen Basil has yet to win a graded race. On the other hand, the son of Harbinger comes off his closest effort so far, a second to Hong Kong Cup (G1) participant Smart Layer, in the Kyoto Daishoten (G2). Third-placer Cheval Grand has since upset the Japan Cup, giving a form boost ahead of Hong Kong, and Tosen Basil also picks up ace Joao Moreira.
Great Britain has three in the line-up, including South African star Smart Call who flies the Union Jack as a resident of Sir Michael Stoute’s yard. A champion mare in her homeland, she beat the top males in the 2016 J&B Met (G1) and earned a Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) ticket in the “Win & You’re In” Paddock (G1). Unfortunately, an injury at her new home in Newmarket robbed her of a chance at Santa Anita last fall, and a winless 2017 left her unable to get into either the Turf or Filly & Mare Turf fields at Del Mar. This is her toughest challenge, but Smart Call remains capable on her day. Indeed, but for costly interference turning for home in the Prix Jean Romanet (G1), she might have won – or at least finished nearer than fourth.
The Ralph Beckett-trained Chemical Charge, last seen floundering in the Woodbine bog in the Canadian International (G1), scored his signature win in the September (G3) over Kempton’s Polytrack. He’ll need to show a bit more on turf, considering his placings in the Hardwicke (G2) and John Porter (G3). Danehill Kodiac has improved since his fourth to Chemical Charge in the September, upsetting French classic-placed Waldgeist in the Cumberland Lodge (G3) and checking in third as the co-highweight in the St Simon (G3). Trainer Richard Hannon Jr., who’d penciled him in for a jumps campaign, now has cause to keep him on the Flat.
Hong Kong has found the Vase the most difficulty trophy to keep at home, with only two local winners (Indigenous in 1998 and Dominant in 2013) since the race’s inception in 1994. That trend is unlikely to change on Sunday.
Eagle Way, the imported Queensland Derby (G1) winner, would have had a better chance if not for a recent illness that’s put him behind the curve for John Moore. Otherwise, he’s been rock-solid in his attempts over the Vase course and distance, landing the Queen Mother Memorial Cup (G3) and placing third to Hong Kong Cup favorite Werther in the Champions & Chater Cup (G1). Gold Mount was behind Eagle Way in both springtime events, but the Tony Cruz charge is limbering up the right way with a handicap win in his return and an eye-catching fourth to Werther in the Jockey Club Cup (G2). And he keeps Zac Purton in the saddle, fresh off his victory in Wednesday night’s International Jockeys Championship. While Helene Charisma has a Group 1 laurel on his resume, thanks to the 2016 Grand Prix de Paris (G1) under his former moniker of Mont Ormel, he’s yet to rediscover that form since moving to Hong Kong. Moore is reaching for the blinkers, and changing the bit, in hopes of turning him around.
Post time for the Hong Kong Vase, the first of the four Hong Kong International Races, is 1 a.m. (EST), and you can watch and wager at TwinSpires.com.