Aidan O’Brien has prepared the winners of an amazing 22 Group One races worldwide in 2016, bringing his career tally to 293, and the Irish training wizard continues to amaze with his unorthodox ways.
O’Brien, the private trainer for the Coolmore Stud organisation, won the Longines Hong Kong Vase last year with Highland Reel and the tungsten-tough colt is back in a bid to round off an amazing 12 months of top level racing.
The Longines Hong Kong International Races is a unique assembly of world leaders in the training profession and none can better O’Brien. At just 47 years of age, he has already bagged 20 titles as Ireland’s champion trainer and 60 British or Irish classics.
While no one would dare criticise his successful methodologies, there is no-one copying the chapter of his training manual that specifically applies to Highland Reel, who had another strong gallop at Sha Tin on Friday.
It was an astonishing fifth gallop in the space of six days for the Galileo colt, who worked on the all-weather track and set the benchmark for the morning, putting 1,200 metres behind him in 1:13.7.
The only leisurely part of the gallop was the opening 200m. From there, it was “peddle to the metal” as Highland Reel ran his last 1,000m in 59.6 seconds, the last 800m in 46.9 and the final 200m in 11.16.
O’Brien’s representative, Pat Keating, had an air of measured confidence later when he said: “That’s all he needed, why do more? I am very happy with him and Cougar Mountain (Mile) and have been since they came out here.”
It will be interesting to see if Highland Reel has one more gallop Saturday, as he has done in two previous visits for Sha Tin features.
Last year’s famous Vase victory with Highland Reel (then a three-year-old) was O’Brien’s first at the HKIR and he will again be partnered by Ryan Moore.
Highland Reel began his season in Dubai at the end of March and has been on the go ever since, with his last two starts being a hard-fought second to stablemate Found in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Chantilly and an all-the-way victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita on November 6.
Last year’s Vase runner-up was Flintshire, prepared by the mercurial Frenchman Andre Fabre, who this year returns with Elliptique in the Longines Hong Kong Cup (2,000m).
Elliptique has maintained a low profile during the week but has gained plenty of admiring glances, with his good looks and athletic way of moving.
On Friday, the New Approach horse showed a little more of the power of his engine, running 1,000m in 1:04.6, the last 600m in 38.8 and the final 200m in 12.2 seconds.
Fabre’s head man Richard Lambert said: “These last few canters are just to maintain his form but he is in really good condition. We were all very happy with the way he went this morning and (work rider) Amelie (Foulon) said he felt good.”
His compatriot Silverwave, prepared by Pascal Bary, is the second highest-rated runner behind Highland Reel in the Vase. The four-year-old also gained admirers with stylish but contained 1,000m in 1:10.8, the last 400m in 23.9 and the final 200m in 11.7.
“Everything has gone fine and he moved well this morning,” Bary said.
“The ground doesn’t bother me because he won the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud on good ground. Highland Reel will obviously be the horse to beat, but I am happy with my horse.”
Silverwave has won six of his 14 starts but significantly has recorded two wins and a second from six starts at the Vase distance of 2,400m.
While Bary is yet to win a HKIR event, he’s had success in the region, having won the 2009 Singapore Airlines International Cup and the 2010 Dubai World Cup with Gloria de Campeao.
The French have a proud record in the Vase, having won five of the last 10, most recently with Flintshire in 2014.