08/04/2010 2:24PM

A Harbinger of Greatness?


Almost since its inception in 1951 the King George VI and Queen Elizabeeth Stakes has rated as one of Europe's very best middle distance events. For four decades it has ranked as the second best mile-and-a-half race in the world behind only the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. There have, however, been any number of King George renewals that have actually outstripped the Arc. This year's edition could be one of them.
The 11-length victory of Harbinger on July 24 at Ascot was a record setting effort in more ways than one. Not only was his margin of victory the largest in the 60 runnings of the race, his time of 2:26.78 set a new course record for the distance, besting the old mark by .46 of a second. Keep in mind that the King George counts among its winners the hallowed names of Ribot, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Dahlia, Shergar, Dancing Brave, Nashwan, Swain, Daylami, Montjeu and Galileo, and you get some idea of Harbinger's achievement.
In trouncing four Group 1 winners (Cape Blanco, Youmzain, Daryakana and Workforce), Harbinger was beating one of the deepest King George fields in recent memory. But it was the ease with which he cruised past his floundering rivals that impressed most of all. He had some very good horses looking like platers at the quarter-pole, from which point they were all in the race for second,
Afterwards, his trainer Michael Stoute quipped that the Arc "was under consideration." Never one to be effusive on any score, Sir Michael was taking the cake for understatement, surely fully aware that he had just engineered one of the more astounding victories anywhere in the last two decades.
Where else to send a horse like Harbinger after such a performance except to the Arc?
Harbinger had given evidence that he might be a potential Group 1 winner last July when he won the 1 1/2-mile, Group 3 Gordon Stakes at Goodwwod in just his third career start. The Gordon is the first serious trial for the St. Leger Stakes, and this victory made him the antepost favorite for the 1 3/4-mile, 132-yard classic. Harbinger subsequently disappointed, however, when he finished a tailed off last of seven as the 13-8 choice in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes. The St. Leger was dismissed as a possibility, and Harbinger was given some time off for Stoute to research the problem.
A third-place finish behind English Oaks third High Heeled in the 1 1/2-mile, Group 3 St Simon Stakes at Newbury on Oct. 24 was hardly encouraging, and so he was put away for the winter in the hope that he would mature into a better horse at four.
Stoute's patience, and that of his owners at Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, paid off from the start of Harbinger's spring campaign. Content to try him in Group 3 company, Stoute watched as his 4-year-old had little trouble defeating 14 outclassed rivals back at Newbury in the 1 1/2-mile John Porter Stakes on April 17. Three weeks later Stoute stepped him up to 1 5/8 miles, 89 yards for the Group 3 Ormonde Stakes at Chester. The result was the same as he gave his five foes 3 to 6 lbs. and a 1 1/2-length beating.
The Ormonde might have seemed an odd choice of races given its distance, but Harbinger was always going to be a better horse at longer than 12 furlongs than shorter. By Dansili, the outstanding sire who is out of the great broodmare Hasili, Harbinger inherits his stamina from his sire, who is also the sire of Arc winner Rail Link, Grand Prix de Paris winner Zambezi Sun and 2-mile Goodwood Cup winner Illustrious Blue, as much as from his female side which hails from the staying influence of his broodmare sire Bering.
But now it was time to step Harbinger up in class. His next stop was Royal Ascot and the 1 1/2-mile, Group 2 Hardwicke Stakes. Ostensibly a course and distance prep for the King George, the Hardwicke winner had gone on to win that year's King George just three times, and only once since 1960 in the form of 2004 winner Doyen.
None of that mattered to Harbinger on the day as he galloped to a 3 1/2-length Hardwicke victory. That his perfect record as a 4-year-old record, including a course and distance score, should have allowed Harbinger to go off at 4-1 in the King George was due to the presence of his stablemate Workforce in field. His 7-length cakewalk in the Epsom Derby had many running scared, but not Harbinger. Stoute knew what he had, and one has a sneaking suspicion that he knew that Harbinger was the superior horse all the time.
Of course, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 3 will be Harbinger's ultimate goal. The question is how to get him there. King George winners do not have a particularly good record in the Arc. Dylan Thomas doubled in the same year, 2007, but you have to go back to 1995 to find the previous dual winner in Lammtarra, and 1986 before that in Dancing Brave.
Lammtarra is the only horse to jump directly from the King George to the Arc and win them both. Many have tried the same trick and failed, among them Generous and Conduit. So trying to win the Arc off a 10-week layoff was never going to be Harbinger's plan off attack. This week Stoute said that he is seriously considering the Juddmonte International at York on August 17 as Harbinger's Arc trial, but that, too, is frought with danger.
First, the Juddmonte is still 47 days before the Arc, and while that in itself is hardly an insurmountable obstacle for a horse of Harbinger's talent, the cut back in distance to 1 1/4 miles, 88 yards is hardly up his alley. Remember, if Harbinger excells at any distance other than 12 furlongs, it is surely going longer than shorter. He hasn't gone shorter than 1 1/2 miles since he broke his maiden going 1 1/4 miles, 75 yards in his second career outing at Chester on May 6, 2009.
The Prix Foy, a Group 2 course and distance prep for the Arc on Sept.12, might be the ideal spot, but British trainers with Arc hopefuls tend to disdain that race as it is frequently a very slowly run affair with only four or five runners. In any event, Stoute is faced with a pleasant dilemma, viz., how to get the Arc favorite to the Arc in good order.
So impressed were the handicappers with Harbinger's King George victory that he was rated the best horse in the world on the World Thoroughbred Rankings this week at 135 lbs. That is an astonishing 8 lbs. higher than the second highweight, the superb 3-year-old miler Canford Cliffs and 9 lbs. higher than America's best, Quality Road.
As good as he appears to be, Harbinger could probably win the Arc at something like 90 percent of his King George effort, regardless of where he runs beforehand.