01/06/2017 3:56PM

2016 Eclipse Awards: Highland Reel


Before anyone really knew what was happening, it was happening.

Highland Reel broke from post 12 in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, came out running, made the lead, and settled into a good rhythm under jockey Seamie Heffernan. He had a two-length lead through an even tempo after a half-mile, and then zip – just like that, Heffernan went for it with an early move.

Highland Reel opened up three, then four, five, six lengths on his nearest pursuer. He took a four-length lead to the stretch call, and that was more than enough to hold off horses that had begun chasing in earnest far too late, among them Flintshire, a fellow finalist for champion older male turf horse of 2016.

Highland Reel, Heffernan’s theft complete before a siren even sounded, wound up 1 3/4 lengths the best in the Turf. In a year lacking a deep group of North American-based turf-stakes runners, the performance was enough to give Eclipse voters something to think about in the older male turf division.

The Turf marked Highland Reel’s only start in North America. He did plenty of running around the rest of the world.

Highland Reel’s season began in Dubai, where he was fourth in the Group 1 Sheema Classic, and then moved on to Hong Kong, where he finished eighth in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

Much closer to his trainer Aidan O’Brien’s home base in Ireland, Highland Reel reemerged in June to finish second in the Hardwicke Stakes at Ascot before landing the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes there.

After a fine second to the very high-class Postponed in the Group 1 International, Highland Reel made his first start in Ireland since September 2015 and failed to produce his best when seventh in a strong edition of the Irish Champion Stakes. But he roared back into form finishing second to stablemate Found in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. A month later, he won the Turf, and five weeks after that Highland Reel was just touched off in the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase after being forced into a fast middle pace.

In a nine-start, March-through-December campaign on three continents, Highland Reel wound up with a 2-4-0 record in 2016. The 5-year-old horse made nearly $5.5 million on the season, all for owners, Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier. The Ireland-bred Highland Reel is by Coolmore’s signature stallion Galileo and out of the Australian-bred Danehill mare Hveger.

Highland Reel would become the first overseas-based horse since the O’Brien-trained Cape Blanco in 2011 to win the older male Eclipse should voters side with him. Cape Blanco didn’t even race in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but won three North American Grade 1’s – the Man o’ War, the Arlington Million, and the Turf Classic.

The last horse to win the older turf male Eclipse off a one-start North American campaign was Conduit in 2008. Conduit won the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita over Presious Passion by 1 1/2 lengths to beat out fellow Eclipse finalists Einstein and Grand Couturier. Neither one of those horses rank with Flintshire, but maybe Highland Reel, just as he did in the Turf, will quietly make off with another big prize.