Highland Reel bids for back-to-back victories
6.00 Sha Tin
Longines Hong Kong Vase (Group 1) | 1m4f | 3yo+ | Turf | ATR/RUK
The conundrum at the heart of the Vase is to what extent will a long, hard season and a tricky draw erode Highland Reel's obvious class edge as he tries to win the race for the second year running.
The King George and Breeders' Cup Turf winner has had eight races this year, starting in Dubai in March, but Ballydoyle's man on the scene, travelling head lad Patrick Keating, is delighted with the four-year-old's condition.
Stall ten does not look catastrophic, as he won easily from nine last year, but he was able to bag the lead and the rail from the gates that day and that looks less likely this time as he has confirmed front-runners Big Orange and Helene Happy Star inside him.
He does not have to lead but, given big-race partner Ryan Moore's preference for saving ground on the rail over holding position by racing wide, there is the possibility he will end up settling further back than ideal.
There are more questions than you would want about an even-money shot, but with Big Orange needing to make it a real gallop to bring his stamina into play the pace should suit Aidan O'Brien's runner perfectly. Off a strong pace, he has the class to pick off his rivals however far back he races in the early stages.
"Highland Reel is usually very uncomplicated and doesn’t seem to mind what way he's ridden – whether we end up making the running or settling him in behind. He can be ridden differently, which is great," O'Brien said.
"He has had a busy season and is not long back from America, but he seems to be in very good form. We know he handles this trip, ground and track well. He's a unique horse as he stays well and possesses a lot of tactical speed.
"He hasn’t been doing a lot of work of late, because he has had a long season, but the boys looking after him are very happy with him."
Michael Bell confirmed the intention is to lead with Big Orange, who made all to win over this distance in the Group 2 Princess of Wales's Stakes before his second Goodwood Cup win and trip to Australia.
"Over a mile and a half on a fast, flat track he'll be up with the pace for sure. I'd be happy to see him lead but they say there might be a bit of pace in the race, so we'll play that by ear. If you take Highland Reel out, it's a wide-open race and he's bang there."
The Japanese are too polite to state openly they would be disappointed not to win three of the four international races but there is a buzz around their challenge and Nuovo Record is viewed as the best of their contenders in the Vase.
The five-year-old mare, who won the Japanese Oaks in 2014 but has since finished second in four Group 1s, has been working harder than most in the mornings. In an 800m [4f] gallop on Thursday she clocked 35.2sec for the final three furlongs. For perspective, Galileo Gold recorded 36.46sec when winning the 2,000 Guineas.
She was second to A Shin Hikari in the Cup last year and put a disappointing run in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf behind her with a Grade 3 win at Del Mar a fortnight ago. She has not raced over a mile and a half since her victory in the Japanese Oaks and is open to improvement at the trip.
The bare form of another Japanese runner, Satono Crown, leaves him with a bit to find, but local wonder jockey Joao Moreira is an eye-catching booking by trainer Noriyuki Hori. Moreira spoke glowingly about the four-year-old after riding him for the first time in work alongside stablemate Maurice on Thursday.
"He feels like a really good horse, I'm really excited about him," said Moreira. "This is a race I haven't won and it usually goes to an overseas runner, so I'm more than glad to be on one of the international horses."
Alain de Royer-Dupre won the Cup with Pride in 2006 but the Vase participation of her son, One Foot In Heaven, is dependent on a piece of work on Saturday morning after the four-year-old showed blood abnormalities following his journey here.