Highland Reel could be the horse to turn around a set of horror stats for champion trainer Aidan O’Brien as the Irishman chases down his first win at the Longines Hong Kong International Races.
O’Brien, 46, has been the champion trainer of Ireland 18 times and is closing in on 250 career Group Ones, 16 of which have come in 2015. Compared to those towering achievements (which include 57 British or Irish classics), his Hong Kong account is - how to put this politely - barren.
That record began inauspiciously in 2001 when Bach was anything but composed in finishing last of 14 runners behind Japan’s Hong Kong Cup hero Agnes Digital, so it was never going to be hard to improve off such a low base.
A breakthrough was promised in 2007 when Dylan Thomas - hero of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, no less - was sent out a $1.70 favourite for the Vase and plodded home a well-beaten seventh before retiring to stud. This year, incidentally, Dylan Thomas has a Sprint contender - Not Listenin’tome.
The shining light of the 14 years of Hong Kong participation of John Magnier’s Ballydoyle stables, under O’Brien’s direction, was the fourth of Powerscourt in the 2004 Cup, won by O’Brien’s old boss, Jim Bolger, with Alexander Goldrun.
In fact, for the statistically minded, the average finishing position of O’Brien’s eight runners at 14 years of HKIR is (drum roll….) ninth.
Highland Reel, however, brings an altogether new profile. He’s come via the Cox Plate in Australia, where he ran third to crackerjack filly Winx in a high-rating race. That race was decided on October 24, so Highland Reel comes into this race relatively fresh.
And that’s a significant point of difference to his past runners in Hong Kong. Highland Reel raced once a month in June, July, August, September and October, and not at all in November. He only went poorly once, a forgivable fifth on very firm ground in the Irish Derby.
So where most of O’Brien’s previous Sha Tin failures have been at the end of a long campaign, Highland Reel has had his races spaced and has been improving in appearance day by day since his arrival.
On Friday, Highland Reel had his final piece of work on the all-weather track, some nice pace work followed by a sprint home to clean up his wind. His times were slick: 600 metres in 36.9 and an attractive final 200m in 11.02. His action was perfect.
O’Brien’s travelling head lad, Pat Keating, was also pleased with what he saw. “That’s his final workout,” Keating said. “He’s in very good form, and I’ve been happy with the way he’s been all week. I hope he’ll go well.”
Sole Power, a regular December visitor to Sha Tin, went 800m on the main turf course, clocking 53.9 seconds. He quickened up nicely over the last 400m in 22.5 and saved the best until last, an 11.2 final split.
Japan’s outstanding miler Maurice, unbeaten in five starts in 2015, has kept the fans waiting all week to see something and when he was produced, he did so to the tune of the sixties hit Is that all there is?
As winner of Japan’s two major weight-for-age mile races, the Yasuda Kinen and the Kyoto Mile Championship, we may have hoped for more from Maurice but what we were left with was a humble 800m in 59.3, the last 400 in 26.4 seconds.
Japanese experts were quick to remind us that the Kyoto win was Maurice’s first run since June, so with just three weeks between races this time, his fitness is already there. The challenge for trainer Noriyuki Hori has been restoring the freshness as Maurice has never returned to the races this quickly before.