A special horse signs off: O’Brien pays tribute to Highland Reel

Highland Reel: “He is very genuine. He is very clear winded and takes not a lot of training. He’s a great horse,” says trainer Aidan O’Brien. Photo: Hong Kong Jockey Club

Few, if any, horses have logged as many frequent flier miles as Highland Reel in recent years. Now, at 5 years old, he will make his final racetrack appearance in in Sunday’s G1 Longines Hong Kong Vase during the Longines Hong Kong International Races.

Highland Reel’s career has spanned four years, four continents and seven countries. Currently ranked as co-11th in the 2017 Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings at 123, the bay horse has found himself listed amongst the best in the world for three consecutive years. 

In 2016, Highland Reel finished the year rated at 123, which was co-12th in the world, and in 2015 he was rated 121, which put him at co-27th. 

“He’s one of those very special horses,” said trainer Aidan O’Brien. “He is very durable, very consistent, and he’s tactically very quick in a race. He is very genuine. He is very clear winded and takes not a lot of training. He’s a great horse.”

The son of Galileo made his racetrack debut in June 2014 and ran second by a mere three quarters of a length. He broke his maiden at second asking by a dominating 12 lengths that July with Joseph O’Brien in the irons, and ironically, that is the only one of his victories to come in Ireland. 

In his third and final start as a juvenile, Highland Reel hinted at things to come with his win in the G2 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Stakes at Goodwood in England.

“Obviously, he was a top class Group 2 winner as a 2-year-old, so his form was right at the top all the way along,” said O’Brien. “It is very unusual to be at the top at 2, 3, 4, and 5, though. Very few horses are able to maintain that.”

Highland Reel’s G1 victories at three included the Secretariat Stakes (United States) and the Longines Hong Kong Vase (Hong Kong - see YouTube video below). He also finished second in the Prix du Jockey Club (France) and third in the William Hill Cox Plate (Australia).

Last year, he added to his G1 tally with scores in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (England) and the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (United States), while finishing second in the Juddmonte International Stakes (England), Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (France), and Longines Hong Kong Vase (Hong Kong).

In his final season, Highland Reel has delivered in the Investec Coronation Cup (England) and Prince of Wales’s Stakes (England), while finishing third in the QIPCO Champion Stakes (England) and Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf (United States).

Four of his G1 victories have come with the world's top-ranked jockey, Ryan Moore (who was Longines World's Best Jockey in 2014 and 2016), in the saddle. Seamie Heffernan, the world #23, was on board for his two U.S. G1 wins.  

One of the keys to Highland Reel’s success is that, while traveling takes something out of many horses, he seems to thrive on it. With his temperament allowing his connections to run him around the world, there was no reason not to do so.

“He loves traveling, really,” said O’Brien. “He is a total pro. He handles all kinds of situations very easily, and he’s a very adaptable horse.”

The list of horses Highland Reel has vanquished throughout his career includes Flintshire, Cirrus Des Aigles, Found, Ulysses, Mondialiste, Hawkbill, Decorated Knight, Queen’s Trust, Dartmouth, Jack Hobbs, and his own full brother, Idaho, among others.

When Highland Reel won the 2015 Vase, he became the first 3-year-old to win the race, and in doing so gave O’Brien his first victory in Hong Kong. It was also a victory for his native Ireland, which had not had a win during the Hong Kong International Races since Alexander Goldrun’s score in the 2004 Hong Kong Cup.

In 2016, he looked to be the winner until Japan’s Satono Crown chased him down in the stretch to win by a half-length. 

This year, Highland Reel’s biggest challenge appears to be Talismanic, who was the upset winner of the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. Highland Reel, sent off the favorite as the defending champion, was a close third.

“We don’t ever take anything for granted,” said O’Brien. “Every one of these races is very special and very hard to win.”

Whether he finds the finish line first or not in the Vase, Highland Reel will return to his native Ireland, as he is set to begin his stallion career at Coolmore Stud at a fee of €17,500 in 2018. 

To date, Highland Reel has been victorious in  six G1 races, won at distances ranging from seven furlongs to 1½ miles and has earned over £6.4 million (€8.3 million), which is more than any other European-trained horse in history and puts him in the all-time world top 20.

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