With Highland Reel a dominant favourite to defend his title in Sunday’s Longines Hong Kong Vase, 2,400m, rivals are looking at freshness and tactics as their primary weapons to change the storyline and Michael Bell is prominent amongst them with Big Orange.
“I think Big Orange is in the mix,” Bell said on Thursday after liking what he saw of his charge in an 1,800m breeze.
“This is the first time I’ve seen him since he ran in the Melbourne Cup a month ago because he’s been in Australia, but he looks in really good nick. If Highland Reel runs to his best, he’s hard to beat and a very worthy favourite. If there are any chinks in his armour, then Big Orange is one of the horses who can exploit them.”
Fifth in last year’s Melbourne Cup, more was expected of Big Orange in 2016 than 10th but Bell concedes the task under the handicap conditions had been challenging.
“In hindsight, it was probably mission impossible with top weight giving progressive horses 10 and 12 pounds,” Bell explained.
“He ran to an official rating of 114 so he ran respectably. And since then he was just run out of the Zipping Classic in the last half furlong when they sprinted late to challenge him and he was rallying – he wasn’t beaten far and on another day might have won that.”
Trying to find any fault in Highland Reel, some observers have wondered if the four-year-old will be at the end of his tether after 120,000 kilometres of global travel to races in seven countries this year. Big Orange on the other hand, had a relatively light season.
“He did run in Dubai in March but he had a very light European campaign, then the two runs in Australia,” Bell said. “Over the season, he’s lightly raced, he’s in good nick and should perform well. Damian Lane rode him a couple of times in Australia so he knows him, he has plenty of experience in Hong Kong.”
Bell forecast a solid pace in the Vase, something which does not happen too often in 2,400m races around the flat track at Sha Tin.
“Big Orange likes a true-run race over 2,400m and he’ll be going a good clip. The favourite Highland Reel obviously made the running when he won in America but he is not a confirmed front-runner,” he said.
“Horse racing is not an exact science but in a normal series of events, we will definitely be on the pace. Ryan Moore on Highland Reel is a very experienced jockey and he won’t want to go on a suicide mission taking us on.”