Things We Learned » Celebrating Highland Reel

Celebrating Highland Reel

Highland Reel was at it again early on Sunday morning: looking vulnerable in a big race (even the commentator said so), then battling back to win decisively, to land the Hong Kong Vase again.  It was a fitting end to the racing career of one of the great racehorses.

His has been an incredible racing career.  He won 10 times, seven times at the highest level.  He won on seven different tracks and in four different countries on three different continents, and over all distances between seven furlongs and a mile and a half.  In so doing, he amassed more prize money than any other racehorse trained in Europe has ever amassed.  He had already topped the prize money list before he won at Sha Tin on Sunday, so first prize for the Vase of the equivalent of over £1 million just took him to a total that will probably not be bettered in a long time.

He won the Hong Kong Vase in 2015, he finished second in the race in 2016, beaten a neck by Japanese horse Satono Crown, and he went back and won it again this year.  Two horses had won the Hong Kong Vase twice before, but no other horse has ever won it, lost it, then won it again.

Think of adjectives for Highland Reel and you think, tough, durable, versatile. But those adjectives should not mask his class.  He is a horse who, you feel, has just this year gained the recognition that his talent has deserved.  He has been under-estimated for much of his racing career.  That can happen sometimes when a racehorse scales the greatest peaks of his career on international shores, one step removed from the domestic media glare and against opposition whose merits we don’t fully comprehend. 

His career was expertly managed by Aidan O’Brien, and the fact that Sunday’s win brought up Group/Grade 1 win number 28 of 2017 for the trainer hardly got a mention in the post-race dispatches. 

The son of Galileo won the Vintage Stakes as a two-year-old, he won the Secretariat Stakes and the Hong Kong Vase as a three-year-old, he won the King George and the Breeders’ Cup Turf as a four-year-old, and he won the Coronation Cup and the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and now the Hong Kong Vase again as a five-year-old.  He also finished second in the Arc and second in the Juddmonte International and second in the Prix du Jockey Club, and one of his best runs in defeat was in the Champion Stakes at Ascot two months ago, when he finished third behind Cracksman and Poet’s Word on the soft ground on which he just did not excel. 

If Highland Reel raced on as a six-year-old, he would probably scale more peaks, amass more prize money, add to his Group/Grade 1 tally.  But the time has come now for him to retire to Coolmore Stud.

His fee has been set at €17,500.  That could under-estimate him too.

Strange to shorten Blaklion

The market did not act rationally in shortening Blaklion’s odds for the Grand National on the back of his Becher Chase win at Aintree on Saturday.  Paradoxically perhaps, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse’s chances of winning the Aintree Grand National were probably reduced on the back of Saturday’s win, not enhanced.

Bookmakers love to shorten a winner.  Regardless of how impressive or otherwise a horse is in victory, or no matter how little he achieves, a win usually results in the tightening of the odds on any potential ante post target that the horse may have.

And so it was on Saturday with Blaklion.  Available at 16/1 generally for the Grand National early last week, he was cut across the board after Saturday’s win, to 10/1 generally and 12/1 in places.

He was impressive in winning on Saturday, no question.  He jumped the big fences well, he travelled through his race well for Gavin Sheehan, he made his ground through his field nicely and he won easily. 

But, in so doing, he was achieving no more than he was entitled to achieve.  As mentioned last week, the handicapper had dropped him, somewhat bizarrely, by 2lb for his Charlie Hall Chase run, when he recorded the highest Timeform rating of his career in going down by a half a length to Bristol De Mai, who is now rated 14lb higher than he was then.  So Blaklion looked like a seriously well-handicapped horse going into Saturday’s race.  That is why he was sent off as the 7/4 favourite.

And we already knew before Saturday that he could operate around Aintree.  He jumped the big fences really well in last season’s Grand National.

Nigel Twiston-Davies and the owners had a decision to make: (a) go for the Becher Chase, for the £80,000 or so first prize, which they had a serious chance of winning with a horse who was fit and well and ready to run, and take your chances in the Grand National in April off an inevitably higher mark, or (b) spurn the Becher Chase, and every other race between now and the publication of the Grand National weights in the middle of February, and retain your handicap rating of 153 that would optimise your chance of winning the National.  

Either course of action was a legitimate course, and they obviously decided on the former.  Bird in the hand.

The net result is that Blaklion’s handicap rating has been raised by 8lb to a mark of 161, and that makes a National tilt more difficult than it would have been.  Any logarithmic suppression of handicap ratings at the top of the handicap will probably be counteracted by the Aintree factor for Blaklion, by his exemplary record over the big fences (fourth in a Grand National, first in a Becher Chase), so his National mark should be close enough to his actual handicap mark.

Racing off a mark of 161, he would be 9lb higher than the mark off which he raced last year when he finished fourth.  Not that he can’t win it off that mark, because he can, he should be better equipped for the race this season as a nine-year-old than he was last season as an eight-year-old.  When Hedgehunter won it as a nine-year-old in 2005 after falling at the last as an eight-year-old the previous season, he was racing off a mark that was just 3lb higher than his 2004 mark.  But he won easily, by 14 lengths.  It is probable that he would have won it even with 6lb more on his back.

However, if Blaklion’s connections had chosen option (b) above, he could have been set to race off a mark of 153 in April, all going well, just 1lb higher than last season’s mark.  Therefore, his chance of winning the Grand National has not improved on the back of Saturday’s win.  His Grand National odds should not have been shortened.  Indeed, you can argue that they should have been lengthened.

John is back!

It didn’t look very good for Sizing John when he made that mistake at the second fence in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown on Sunday.  Add that to the heavy ground and his weakness in the pre-race market, and you would have been forgiven for hoping for a respectable performance at best from that point, for thinking that winning was unlikely.  (100/30 in-running on Betfair.)

What followed was striking.  Jessica Harrington’s horse quickly settled into his rhythm for Robbie Power after that mistake, he found him jumping mojo again down the back straight, and he came clear of Djakadam and Sub Lieutenant over the last two fences.

You worried about the spring that he had last year, Irish Gold Cup, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Punchestown Gold Cup, three Gold Cups, three hard races over more than three miles in the space of less than three months.  Worry no more.  Sunday’s performance was a serious performance, probably up there with the best of his life on heavy ground that he apparently doesn’t handle.  He sets the Gold (Cup) standard again this season.  He is still only seven and, all things being equal, there is no knowing what he could achieve. 

Sceau impressive

It is true that Saturday’s Heny VIII Chase at Sandown was run to suit Sceau Royal, but he still had to have the talent to do what he did, to win as impressively as he did.

The fast pace that Brian Power set was ideal for Alan King’s horse.  It meant that Daryl Jacob was able to sit and stalk, stone cold, get him jumping and get him travelling.  And when Jacob took a tug as they exited the back straight (just not yet), and with Finian’s Oscar struggling in behind, you knew what the most likely outcome was.

Visually, it was an impressive performance, and the visual impression was backed up by the substance.  Brain Power may have finished second had he not departed at the last, but he would have been a well-beaten second at best.  Greatwood Hurdle winner and Arkle Trial Chase winner North Hill Harvey was beaten by 11 lengths. 

And the time was very good, faster than the time that Politologue clocked in winning the Tingle Creek Chase over the same course and distance 70 minutes later, and 0.17secs/furlong faster than Racing Post par.

It all continues the unbelievable run that owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede are enjoying (it continued with Polidam at Navan on Sunday, and with Top Notch in the re-routed Peterborough Chase at Taunton on Thursday), and it gives them an interesting dilemma for the Arkle, given that the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad also races in their colours.

There is the option to step either Footpad or Sceau Royal up in trip for the JLT Chase.  Sceau Royal is all two miles, he has never been beyond two miles and a furlong in his life.  By contrast, Footpad won the Grade 1 Prix Alain du Breil over two and a half miles at Auteuil in June last year, and he finished third behind Unowhatimeanharry and Nichols Canyon in the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown last April over three miles.

That said, he was so good in winning his beginners’ chase over two miles and a furlong at Navan last month that the minimum trip could still be his optimum over fences. Lots of water will flow under the bridge between now and March.

Yorkhill talented and versatile

So we know that Yorkhill is highly talented, but just in case you were doubting his versatility, here is a list of the entries that Willie Mullins’ horse holds over the Christmas period at Leopardstown:

  • Squared Financial Christmas Hurdle (a three-mile hurdle)
  • Ryanair Hurdle (a two-mile hurdle)
  • Leopardstown Christmas Steeplechase (a three-mile chase)
  • St Benildus College End Of Term Obstacle Race (a 100-yard hurdle)

Okay, we lied about the obstacle race, but the other three are real.

© The Irish Field, 16th December 2017