Things We Learned » Super Seamie

Super Seamie

It is correct that Seamie Heffernan received the plaudits that he received for his ride on Highland Reel in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita on Saturday evening.

The rider was not helped by his draw on the outside, stall 12 of 12, and he didn’t panic when the stalls opened.  He allowed his horse to get out of the stalls and find his feet, he allowed him a few strides to get into his own rhythm before giving him a squeeze and asking him to move forward, towards the front of his field.

It was a little surprising that Jose Ortiz and Ectot did not fight a little harder for the lead.  They had the advantage of an inside berth, and they had made all when they won the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park a month earlier, beating Flintshire by five lengths.  But they allowed Highland Reel drift past on the run to the first corner, and they never got to the front. 

Of course, Heffernan was helped by the fact that the other riders wanted to ride waiting races.  And we, as viewers, were helped in informational terms by the display of the sectionals: 24.83secs, 48.00secs, 72.70secs, 96.16secs.  Heffernan did not have the data on a screen in front of him, but you can be sure that the clock in his head told him that he was getting an easy lead. 

That was obviously why he kicked on before they got to the end of the back straight, why he kicked to a six- or seven-length lead around the home turn.  It was said afterwards that that was the winning of the race there, that that was the winning move, but it wasn’t that move on its own which did it.  It was that move, combined with the easy lead that Heffernan had engineered for himself, all made possible by the rider’s awareness and knowledge and experience.

For Highland Reel, it was a fourth Group/Grade 1 victory, to go with his Hong Kong Vase and his King George and his Secretariat Stakes.  He is – or at least he was – probably an under-rated horse, but he is dynamite when he has the fast conditions that he had on Saturday.  Combine that with an easy lead, and there’s your formula for success right there. 

It was a first Breeders’ Cup victory for both horse and rider.  Heffernan was never a man for high fives or general effervescence, that has never been his way, but this victory had to have been sweet for him.  And it was just reward for a top class rider who has been with Aidan O’Brien effectively since he embarked on his own career as a trainer.  

Significant week in remarkable year for O’Brien

Speaking of Aidan O’Brien, it was another significant week as we close in on the end of a truly extraordinary year.  Champion for the 19th time in Ireland, champion for the fifth time in Britain with a record-breaking total, with that unprecedented Arc de Triomphe 1-2-3 (which counted towards neither championship), Highland Reel was his 11th Breeders’ Cup winner, his sixth Breeders’ Cup Turf winner, and his 22nd Group/Grade 1 win of the year.  He probably won’t beat Bobby Frankel’s world record of 25 now, not this year, but it has been fun trying.

Then on Wednesday, the Ballydoyle horses dominated the Cartier Awards.  Minding was named Three-Year-Old filly of the year and Found was named Older Horse of the Year, while Order Of St George won the Stayer Award and Churchill was named Two-Year-Old Colt of the Year.  And to cap it all, Minding was named Cartier Horse of the Year, while Aidan himself was rewarded for his exploits in 2016 with the Award of Merit.

Mixed messages about last year’s juveniles

One of the most interesting aspects of any new National Hunt season is the observation of how last year’s juveniles fare when they take on their elders.

“Difficult for last year’s juveniles” is the perceived wisdom, and that is backed up by the fact that Katchit remains the only five-year-old to win the Champion Hurdle since See You Then won the first of his three in 1985.

Last year’s outstanding juveniles were Ivanovich Gorbatov and Apple’s Jade, who between them won the Grade 1 championship juvenile hurdles at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown festivals.  But both horses were beaten last weekend on their respective seasonal debuts.  Apple’s Jade was beaten by Rashaan in the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle at Down Royal, while Ivanovich Gorbatov could only finish third behind De Plotting Shed and Jett at Naas on Sunday.

Both horses performed well below their best last weekend.  Perhaps it might just take a little while for them to recover from busy and tough springs, and hopefully they can ease their respective ways into the season now.

By contrast, Sceau Royal has been impressing.  He was impressive in winning at Cheltenham’s October meeting on his seasonal debut – easily beating Leoncavallo, who could be a big player in tomorrow’s Greatwood Hurdle – and he stepped forward from that to win the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton last Saturday.  He had the measure of Zubayr when his fellow four-year-old fell at the final flight, and he clocked a good time.

Sceau Royal was disappointing in the Triumph Hurdle last March, but all three of Alan King’s horses were disappointing in the Triumph Hurdle last March.  Perhaps the fact that the Doctor Dino gelding was spared hard races in the championship races in the spring will stand to him as he moves through his sophomore year. 

Nicholls’ flying start continues

Paul Nicholls’ flying start to the season shows no sign of abating.  The champion trainer has had 65 winners in Britain this season already, over half the total that he achieved last season, and we are only in mid-November.

His October figures for the last couple of years are interesting.  In the three years that have gone before, his October figures were quite consistent: 11 winners from 44 runners in 2013, 10 from 44 in 2014, 14 from 48 in 2015.  This year, he had 29 winners from 72 runners in October.  More than twice the number of winners from almost twice the number of runners, and a strike rate of 40%, which is seriously impressive. 

It could be down to the fact that Willie Mullins came so close to wresting the trainer’s title from Nicholls last year.  That this year he has decided, don’t take that chance again.  Get so far clear that nobody else even thinks they have a chance.  That was always AP McCoy’s strategy.  Hammer the nails in before anyone else has a chance of laying claim to your title.  AP used to have a hundred winners in the bag before most people had decided where they were going on their summer holidays. 

Last Saturday was a case in point for Nicholls.  He had five winners, three seconds and three thirds, and if the last obstacle had not claimed Southfield Theatre and Zubayr at Wincanton, and Zarkandar at Aintree, he probably would have had seven winners, four seconds and three thirds.

Jockey bookings are interesting too, with Sam Twiston-Davies still unfortunately on the sidelines.  In the last two weeks, Nick Scholfield has had 12 rides for Nicholls (and three winners), Harry Cobden has also had 12 rides (four winners), Sean Bowen has had eight (one winner), Stan Sheppard has had five (two winners), and Jack Sherwood has had three (one winner).  Looks like there’s plenty for everyone.

Quote of the week

Seamie Heffernan’s response when Gary O’Brien of At The Races put it to him that Highland Reel was an under-rated horse:

“Some horses with a lot of class get under-estimated.  Some people with a lot of class get under-estimated.  That’s the way it goes.”

 The rider wasn’t talking about himself, but he could have been.


© The Irish Field, 12th November 2016