Monday Musings: The Final Highland Fling

The new jackets and caps were on show at the Tattersalls December Sales in Newmarket over the past two weeks, Coolmore insiders and nearly-so’s proudly sporting the liveries of new-for-2018 stallions Caravaggio, Churchill and Highland Reel, writes Tony Stafford.

The first two, winners respectively of two and four Group 1 races, were recently announced as standing for €35,000. Their five-year-old compatriot commands only half their fee, but there will be plenty willing to stump up the requisite €17,500 if that will guarantee the sort of tenacity and consistency Highland Reel showed throughout a 27-race, 10-win career over four seasons’ action.

Seven of the Galileo horse’s victories were at the highest level, the latest as recently as 6 a.m. London and Ballydoyle time yesterday. In the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin, in typical fashion he resisted the apparently decisive challenge of Talismanic, the Andre Fabre horse that beat him into third in the Breeders’ Cup Turf race at Del Mar.

A winner at two in the second of two maidens and then Goodwood’s Veuve Clicquot Vintage Stakes, in a truncated three-race juvenile campaign, he came up short in the French Guineas, Prix du Jockey Club and Irish Derby at the top level before opening his 2015 winning streak back at Goodwood in the Gordon Stakes.

Then Aidan O’Brien looked overseas for his initial Group 1 successes, at Arlington and at the end of that year in the first of three tries at the Hong Kong Vase. In between he was a good third behind the unstoppable Australian mare Winx at Moonee Valley.

At four, Highland Reel made a satisfactory start when fourth in the Sheema Classic behind Postponed and between that and a good second place on his next December try in Hong Kong, he won the King George at Ascot and the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita.

This year, after a pipe-opener at Meydan, he won the Coronation Cup, overcoming travel problems which left his participation in doubt until an hour before the race, and the Prince of Wales; ran honourably in the money in the King George and Champion Stakes despite unsuitably soft ground, before his last two tilts with Talismanic.

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Of his ten wins, the last seven were all at Group or Grade 1 and since his Gordon Stakes win, only once did he race outside the top level in 20 consecutive races. Those exertions brought career earnings of a shade more than £7.5 million for the Coolmore partners and renewed lustre to the training excellence of Aidan O’Brien, yesterday’s being his 28th Group/Grade 1 win of a record year.

Already O’Brien’s highest money-earner before yesterday, he has comfortably eclipsed the achievements of his nearest equivalent, St Nicholas Abbey, another Galileo globe-trotter who won nine of 21 races and a shade under £5 million.

There were four one-million pound-plus races at Sha Tin yesterday, Highland Reel’s Vase actually being marginally the least valuable. The biggest prize went to Time Warp, one of three wins for local trainers, in the Hong Kong Cup over ten furlongs.

If Highland Reel’s tale has been one of almost unbroken big-race triumph, Time Warp’s has been a slow-burner. Originally in training with Sir Mark Prescott, the son of Archipenko, bred by the sire’s owner Kirsten Rausing, won four times as a juvenile, in a maiden and a couple of nurseries, before travelling across to France for his four-in-a-row.

This came at Craon, in Western France, in the Criterium de l’Ouest, a Listed race where you always have to beat a Jean-Claude Rouget favourite, as did French Fifteen for my boss Ray Tooth four years earlier on his way to Group 1 success in the Criterium International at Saint-Cloud.

Time Warp, now gelded, returned to France for his three-year-old reappearance, again at Listed level, when successful at Saint-Cloud. He presumably had a problem, as a planned offering at the London sale the day before Royal Ascot was aborted.

The next sighting of Time Warp was under new local ownership and in the care of former top jockey Tony Cruz in Hong Kong. Starting this January he ran seven times without reward before opening his account on June 14 winning off a mark of 81. Despite handicapper Nigel Gray’s upward adjustment to 89 and then 97, his progress continued in two more handicaps, before a creditable third place in a Group 3 handicap under 106. That was a hot heat as the winner, Beauty Generation, an Australian import, won the Mile race yesterday.

Next came two more near misses, the second by only a neck to the 2016 Vase winner, Werther, in a Group 2 over 10 furlongs three weeks ago. Yesterday, he gained emphatic revenge over Werther with an all-the-way victory and an almost £1.5 million pay-out. Upwardly-mobile or what?

With the snow descending earlier than usual, and the first time with any density for years in London, Huntingdon’s Peterborough Chase meeting was a notable casualty. The previous two days offered excellent sport on either side of the Irish Sea, while Punchestown’s avoidance of the worst of the weather enabled Sizing John to make a breath-taking return yesterday. He will still be only eight when he tries to add to this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup honours, and the way he dashed away from Djakadam suggests the title will not be easily taken from him.

The same goes for Buveur d’Air’s prospects of a repeat in the Champion Hurdle. He was smoothness personified when landing short odds in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle just over a week ago and the Christmas Hurdle should be another formality. A fit Faugheen might offer serious opposition, but even he would probably find Buveur d’Air’s speed too much for him on that track.

Apart from the wind issue that has interfered, temporarily it is hoped, with Altior’s progress, Nicky Henderson is enjoying a great run, and the ease with which On the Blind Side dismissed his Sandown opponents on Friday suggests that even at £205,000 he was a bargain buy for Alan Spence, who had 24 lunch guests in his box – “all old mates” – to help force his gelding’s price down to 11-10.

Colin Tizzard, widely expected to challenge Henderson and Paul Nicholls for the trainers’ title with his powerful team sprinkled liberally with horses owned by Ann and Alan Potts Ltd, has been going through a less than perfect time with the big guns.

After inexplicably poor shows the previous week or so for Cue Card and Thistlecrack, the Potts pair of Fox Norton and Finian’s Oscar failed to justify favouritism at Sandown. The long odds-on Fox Norton narrowly failed to peg back the fast-improving Politologue, Paul Nicholls’ tenth winner of the Tingle Creek Chase, but Finian’s Oscar ran a shocker in the novice chase. It is one thing getting up to the top, but as Henderson and Nicholls have shown over many years, even harder to stay there.

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