A tribute to Highland Reel
Official ratings are important in horse racing. They drive our handicap system and give us a numerical means to compare the merit of horses not just within the current crops of horses, but across racing history. However, they are not and should never be considered the sole measure of a horse’s legacy.
There is so much that ratings cannot express that can make a horse special. While their value cannot necessarily be expressed numerically, longevity, toughness, will to win and the manner in which a horse is campaigned can all contribute to elevate horses higher in the affections of the racing public than their rating ever can. There have been few better recent examples of this on the Flat than HIGHLAND REEL.
Highland Reel will not go down as an all-time great in terms of ratings. Indeed, he might only just sneak into the top 10 turf performers this year in the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings. However, it matters little. Horses like Highland Reel are rare. Horses like him run through any barriers that ratings may create to deny them being remembered as being special.
During the course of the last three seasons, Highland Reel has slowly but surely galloped and battled his way into the hearts of the racing public. Sometimes, horses like him that are sent on their travels in pursuit of Group 1 wins are dismissed by some as not being good enough to compete at the very highest level in Europe, but he has shown again and again that he can mix it with the best anywhere in the world. Indeed, it was perhaps his battling victories in the Coronation Cup at Epsom and the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot this season that elevated him to the levels of popularity that his achievements abroad had long entitled him to.
It felt appropriate that Highland Reel ended his racing career with a battling second victory in the Longines Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin, the seventh Group/Grade 1 win of his career. It is rare that the racing public in Hong Kong take an international contender into their affections as they would one of their own, but the response that Highland Reel received from the crowd on what was his fourth run at the track showed that he has won over racing audiences all over the world.
On the subject of his travelling, there has surely never been a top-class thoroughbred that has put up more air miles in his career than Highland Reel. By my calculations, he has travelled approximately 200,000 kilometres in the air during his racing career. That is just shy of five full laps around the world.
That in itself is remarkable, but what should not be underestimated is what comes with travelling a thoroughbred to race and the difficulties that it presents. Thoroughbreds are creatures of routine, they thrive in familiarity. The travel itself isn’t so much the challenge, it is getting the horse to adjust and settle in their new surroundings and routine at their destination. Aidan O’Brien and his team may have made this process an art form, but that shouldn’t mean that we forget the challenges they meet with every time they take a horse abroad. Considering Highland Reel travelled abroad for all bar five of 27 career starts, it is truly remarkable just how consistent his form pattern proved to be despite what was a very testing racing schedule, with all bar five of his career starts coming at the highest level.
While no one could have ever foreseen just how remarkable Highland Reel’s racing career would prove to be, he is just the latest member of his family that has a long history of global travel. It was just over 100 years ago that his ninth dam Eulogy made the long journey by boat from Great Britain to New Zealand and gave birth to his eighth dam Eulalie in 1924. The family continued to develop for many years in New Zealand until his third dam Olympic Aim was moved to Australia in the 1980s, giving birth to his second dam Circles of Gold in 1991. Circles of Gold was a Group 1 winner on the track there, but she proved to be an even better broodmare, producing the globetrotting Group 1 winners Haradasun and Elvstroem as well as a Group 1-placed filly called Hveger. After giving birth to her first foal in Australia, Hveger made the long flight to Ireland to become a yearly mate for Galileo, with their second meeting producing the colt that would become Highland Reel. The rest, as they say, is history.
Having wrote the perfect final chapter in his racing career in the Longines Hong Kong Vase, Highland Reel will soon begin writing his next volume in the breeding shed. While he will not be the highest-rated son of Galileo to retire to the stallion ranks, Highland Reel perhaps encapsulates better than any of them the incredible will to win and constitution that Aidan O’Brien so often talks about when discussing the merits of Galileo’s progeny. If he can pass those priceless attributes on to his progeny, history may well show that his remarkable second victory at Sha Tin only proved to be the beginning of the Highland Reel story.Follow @kevinblake2011