12/08/2016 3:06PM

Highland Reel looks for Hong Kong Vase repeat

Debra Roma
The well-traveled Highland Reel seeks his second straight Hong Kong Vase win on Sunday.

HONG KONG – Where has Highland Reel traveled? Africa? No. South America? No. Antarctica? No.

All other continents? Yes.

And it is not like Highland Reel merely shows up. The hickory 4-year-old has run top races all over the world, and on Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse, he’ll try to win the Group 1, $2.1 million Hong Kong Vase for the second year in a row.

Based in Ireland with trainer Aidan O’Brien, Highland Reel’s first transoceanic trip was to Chicago, where he won the 2015 Secretariat Stakes in August. Two months later, he was seen in Australia finishing third to the great Winx in the Cox Plate. In December, Highland Reel showed up in Hong Kong and was too much for the favored Flintshire in the Vase.

If it was March, then yes, Highland Reel must have been in Dubai; he finished fourth there in Postponed’s excellent Sheema Classic. But then, running well below form, albeit on yielding ground, he was 10th back at Sha Tin for the Queen Elizabeth II Cup.

Anyone who thought O’Brien had traveled Highland Reel so extensively because the colt lacked the quality for elite races in Europe was proved wrong. Highland Reel won the Group 1 King George, finished second in the Group 1 International, and, following a below-par Irish Champions Stakes, ran second in the Arc.

And for dessert, Highland Reel ate the competition in the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf, moving early under Seamie Heffernan to beat Flintshire home by 1 3/4 lengths.

A normal creature would have been ready for the beach, binge-watching a television series, or, at most, quiet strolls in the woods. Highland Reel is no normal creature.

Five weeks after the Breeders’ Cup, he’s back in Hong Kong, and during a routine gallop Wednesday morning, Highland Reel was, somehow, still a slick-coated bundle of well-managed energy.

That’s bad news indeed for 13 other horses in the 1 1/2-mile Vase because Highland Reel simply is better than they. Not only that, Highland Reel is getting the firm going he likes, will have Ryan Moore on his back, and has the tactical versatility to make his own race. No wonder Highland Reel looms the shortest-priced favorite among the four Group 1 races Sunday.

The Japanese mare Nuovo Record has come back over the Pacific after two starts in California, where she won the Grade 3 Red Carpet Stakes on Nov. 24 at Del Mar in a step back toward the form that saw her finish second in the Hong Kong Cup last year. She worked strongly Wednesday and could complete a short-priced exacta.

The French horse Silverwave has enough class to earn a high placing but is making his first start outside of France and began his season way back in April. The locally based horse Eastern Express tries 2,400 meters for the first time and might like it enough to crash the trifecta.

Plenty of options in Sprint

Lucky Bubbles, based here in Hong Kong, and Big Arthur, from Japan, might narrowly rate the best chances in the $2.4 million Hong Kong Sprint, but the six-furlong, one-turn dash with 14 horses often comes down to the luck of the trip, and there are many other capable sprinters who might take advantage of good fortune.

Big Arthur possesses better tactical speed than Lucky Bubbles, though he has drawn a worse post, 14 to 5. Ryan Moore rides Big Arthur and with a sharp break might be able to work out a satisfactory stalking trip.

Peniaphobia, the 2015 Sprint winner, is the likely leader from the rail, with the capable Australian Takedown likely to take him on early. If things go right, Moore could have Big Arthur positioned in the second flight, racing with cover, perhaps two wide, outside the race’s 2014 hero, Aerovelocity.

Big Arthur, a Group 1 sprint winner earlier this year, is owed some luck since he had none last out in the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes, where he was steadied early and shut off badly late, never getting a chance to run.

If the leaders go fast and suck the pressers along with them, the race could set up beautifully for Lucky Bubbles. Lucky Bubbles ended his 2015-16 Hong Kong season with a fine second to the sensational Chatauqua, won his first start this season, and was beaten to the punch last out in his prep for this race by the perfect-trip-getting Notlisten’intome. The latter will be hard pressed to repeat his last-start victory, but Takedown is a plausible winner at a price.

Pure Sensation, the only American horse here, is being treated for a foot bruise, was unable to train Wednesday, and might have to be scratched.