03/23/2017 9:36AM

Battle-toughened Postponed goes for Sheema Classic repeat

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Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
Postponed would be the first repeat winner of the Dubai Sheema Classic.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Postponed could become the first repeat winner of the $6 million Dubai Sheema Classic on Saturday night at Meydan Racecourse. Could – but not necessarily will.

Postponed is the likely favorite in the 1 1/2-mile grass race, but he will have to improve upon his performance at Meydan three weeks ago, when he finished second in the Dubai City of Gold, a race he was expected to win.

On the one hand, that race, Postponed’s first since Oct. 2, merely was a tune-up for the Sheema Classic, and Postponed got sawed off at the top of the stretch and had to dive inside while the horse who beat him, Prize Money, sailed on to victory in the clear. On the other hand, Prize Money is nowhere near the quality of horse Postponed meets Saturday.

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Among his six rivals are Highland Reel, Jack Hobbs, and Seventh Heaven, any of whom can win. But Roger Varian, who trains Postponed for Sheikh Mohammed Obaid al-Maktoum, believes Postponed will improve.

“He looks in great form,” Varian said Wednesday. “He looks like a different horse altogether than the one three weeks ago. I think he was ring-rusty last time.”

Postponed, by Dubawi, was lightly raced and only decent at age 2, better at 3, a horse on the cusp of Group 1 quality at 4, and a tiger last year at 5. He started his 2016 season by winning the Dubai City of Gold by three lengths, and he dominated the Sheema, beating Duramente by two lengths. Back in England, he beat Found in the Coronation Cup and Highland Reel in the Juddmonte International, but Postponed also picked up a virus that knocked him out of action for a time, and he was not the same horse in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 2, finishing fifth.

Horses rise, and horses fall, and it’s fair to wonder if the 6-year-old Postponed will be the same force as the 5-year-old version.

“We’ll only find that out on Saturday night,” said Varian. “He looks the part.”

Highland Reel set the pace and finished fourth in the 2016 Sheema while perhaps still getting over a trip to Hong Kong in mid-December and a stirring victory there over Flintshire. Highland Reel has grown comfortable leading 12-furlong grass races and did just that in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, stealing the race from the favored Flintshire before that rival really knew what was happening.

In another trip to Hong Kong in December, the heavily favored Highland Reel was run down by the Japanese horse Satono Crown, but only after being forced into a frantic middle pace that left him gasping for air at the end of a long campaign.

If Highland Reel and jockey Ryan Moore don’t make a clear lead, it will be because Jack Hobbs presses him. The lightly raced 5-year-old, owned by Godolphin and partners, races in blinkers for the first time Saturday. Second in the 2015 English Derby to his stablemate Golden Horn, Jack Hobbs won the Irish Derby that year (Highland Reel finished fifth) by five lengths, and it was that performance in particular that gives trainer John Gosden hope that Jack Hobbs can break through.

“He won the Irish Derby over a mile and a half on a galloping track like this, and that is his game,” Gosden said. “He needs to improve. We’re perfectly aware we’re third or fourth favorite, but he seems in good order.”

Rain forecast for Saturday is no concern for Jack Hobbs, who “likes a little cut in the ground,” according to Gosden.

Highland Reel’s trainer, Aidan O’Brien, won this race in 2013 with St Nicholas Abbey, and he has a second legitimate chance here with Seventh Heaven. The 4-year-old filly last was seen finishing a close, closing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, a 1 1/4-mile race shorter than Seventh Heaven’s best trip. Seventh Heaven gets a 5 1/2-pound break in the weights, and if she runs back to her win last summer in the Group 1 Yorkshire Oaks, where she beat Found going 1 1/2 miles on a flat, left-handed track like Meydan’s, she can become the third female in four years to win the Sheema.